Thousands flee island's sectarian riots

 

Thousands of foreigners and refugees fled to Bali yesterday by air and by ferry from the resort island of Lombok, 30 km to the east, after Muslim rioters burned several Protestant and Catholic churches and Chinese-owned businesses.

The Australian and British governments yesterday warned their nationals to leave Lombok or stay in their hotels as crowds ransacked churches for a third day. Nowhere in Indonesia now seems to be immune from the sectarian violence that has swept through sections of the archipelago in recent weeks with increasing ferocity.

In Jakarta, President Abdurrahman Wahid said the government's patience was running out, after concern over the possible spread of violence to Jakarta drove the rupiah and stocks down heavily. "We are patient to a certain point, but when it's transgressed then we will take harsh action," he said. "I think now the time comes."

Violence lies just beneath the surface in areas of Indonesia where Muslims and the minority Christian communities live together, with both sides outraged by allegations of atrocities from Ambon. In southern Sulawesi yesterday a mob of 200 Muslims turned on a group of Christians.

However, there have also been rallies by people against further violence. More than 3,000 Muslims gathered peacefully in the Javanese city of Solo demanding that the government end Christian-Muslim fighting in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and another 150 Muslims demonstrated outside Vice-President Megawati Sukarno putri's Jakarta office with the same demands.

Most of the 2.5 million people of Lombok are Muslims, but it has Hindu and Christian communities as well as Chinese Indonesians, and almost 100,000 Balinese. Following the attempted coup which led to President Sukharno's downfall in 1965, there were mass killings of communists and Chinese in Lombok.

The violence this week began after several thousand Muslims rallied in the capital, Mataram, to protest against violence in the Moluccas.

Responding to growing fears that Indonesia could explode, Mr Wahid said yesterday the violence could be brought under control. "What crisis? We know how to settle the problems," he told a group of foreign reporters at the presidential palace. He insisted he knew what was going on and that he could feel the pulse of his people.

Indonesia's first directly elected president is, however, being made to appear weak and not fully in control by the violence, which may be the aim of those instigating it. An Indonesian team promoting reconciliation in Maluku, where 1,700 people are believed to have died in sectarian violence, identified four agitators with links to the administration of the former president, Mr Suharto, forced to resign in 1998.

Mr Tasmrin Amal Tamagola, a member of the government-appointed team, said they suspected that Mr Suharto and his business associates had financed the provocateurs, and said Gen Wiranto, the former armed forces chief, was a key figure to whom they could trace "all connections" to the conflict.

Mr Wahid blamed militant Muslims and Christians, former military officers and unemployed youths for the sectarian violence. "I know exactly who those people are," he said. "They are only in the minority. The more they do, the more the people know and the more they hate them. It doesn't work. I know it."

Some leading Muslims have called for a holy war or jihad against Christians in the Moluccas, but Mr Wahid, leader of the country's largest Muslim organisation, has said he will take action against anyone instigating a jihad.

Mr Wahid also said he would visit the strongly Muslim province of Aceh next week. He repeated his offer of a referendum on imposing sharia law in the separatist province but ruled out any vote on independence.

The Indonesian President said he continued to have confidence in Gen Wiranto, now co-ordinating minister for political and security affairs, but said he would have to step down if found guilty of human rights abuses in East Timor.

Relations between the President and Gen Wiranto have deteriorated recently, with rumours sweeping Jakarta of coup plots by the military. The US has warned the generals not to destabilise Mr Wahid's democratic government. The US ambassador to the UN, Mr Richard Holbrooke, accused them of being unco-operative with investigations into atrocities in East Timor.

Renewed clashes between Indonesian security forces and separatist rebels have left at least 10 people dead in the province of Aceh, the police and the military said yesterday. They also said that five soldiers were injured in a grenade attack on their truck.