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Navy evacuates 768 terrified Christians

South China Morning Post - June 23, 2000

Vaudine England, Jakarta – The navy yesterday evacuated more than 750 terrified Christians from the village of Duma on Halmahera, as large groups of Muslim fighters rampaged across the North Maluku.

Military spokesman Captain Asson Sirait said 768 men, women and children were taken by ship from Duma to Halmahera's main town Tobelo, just 25km away. "They have to be evacuated by warships because going across land is not safe as the area is surrounded by Muslim villages," said Jerda Djawa, a Christian preacher based near Duma.

Military-run evacuations are unusual in the Maluku conflict, but these follow public criticism of both the Government and military for failing to halt the fighting. Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono said the armed forces and police were trying their best to control the situation and more troops were being deployed. But it was difficult to stop outside provocateurs and weapons from being smuggled into the area.

Meanwhile, armed Muslims attacked a police station and set houses and a church ablaze in fresh clashes in the Maluku capital, Ambon, leaving five people dead, Indonesian police said yesterday.

The deputy head of the province's mobile police brigade, Major Edi Susanto, and a three-year-old child were among those killed. "Major Edi Susanto was shot in the back. There are several other civilians and police personnel who are seriously injured," police spokesman Major Philips Jekriel said from Ambon. Major Jekriel said the reason behind the attack was unclear. But the Maluku chapter of the Indonesian Ulemas Council said it was triggered by the murder of a Muslim man.

The clashes continued yesterday morning, with mobs throwing homemade bombs and grenades, but the situation had been brought under control by midday, though the city remained paralysed, with banks, offices and schools closed.

Foreign and Indonesian relief and religious leaders said the outside world wrongly thought fighting in Halmahera had only flared in recent days. "Since the middle of May, fighting has been more or less continuous somewhere on Halmahera," said one source in daily touch with the island.

"There has been nothing in the newspapers about it, except the Mamuya attack in early June. Yet reports from Manado [in neighbouring Sulawesi] and Ternate [in North Maluku], and from both Muslims and Christians, show fighting has just been going on and on." Recent arrivals of armed Muslim "jihad" fighters, grouped under the Laskar Jihad, have lead to the assumption that these extremists are largely to blame for recent killing sprees. But their arrival is only one factor, added to an already volatile mix. "The Laskar Jihad is only reinforcing what was already there and already happening on Halmahera," a local relief source said.

Several Christian sources expressed fears in January that a deliberate move by armed Muslims was underway from the Muslim sultanates of Ternate and Tidore, just south of Halmahera. "They cleaned up Ternate and Tidore of Christians, then they attacked the mainland. We are very afraid they will just keep coming," a Christian from Halmahera said.

"Those predictions seem to be coming true," a diplomat said."There are many more trouble-makers in the area. There are individuals, both in Jakarta and in the Maluku, who want to see the conflict continue."

Thousands of people displaced by the fighting have moved, sometimes only just ahead of their aggressors, into the next village or town for refuge, only to move on again when fighting got closer. Officials said they could not guess the number of displaced people in North Maluku as populations were constantly shifting and access to information was difficult. "All this could have been foreseen, but everyone kept their heads in the sand. It's been wilful self-delusion," said a Manado-based church source.

Confirmation of details of the conflict in the Malukus is made more difficult by the barring of independent observers from Halmahera while fighting rages. International relief groups are also banned from the area.