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Militants arrive to fuel unrest on Maluku islands

Indonesia's president declared a state of emergency June 26, as Christian- Muslim fighting escalated.

A day after Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid declared a state of emergency in the strife-torn Maluku islands, paramilitaries continued to have the run of the major towns, and the hottest fighting of the year raged June 27 in the provincial capital of Ambon.

To suppress the Christian-Muslim conflict, the government took additional measures besides imposing a civil emergency, which empowers the military to impose curfews and detain suspects indefinitely. A Hindu was appointed military chief for the region in an effort to inject a sense of neutrality to a force accused of taking sides among warring factions.

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But there were few signs of any imminent calm.

A leader of the Laskar Jihad, a radical Muslim group that many blame for igniting the latest round of bloodshed, vowed that it would not back down. The presence of the Laskar, from Indonesia's dominant island of Java, has strengthened the hands of Muslim fighters in the past few weeks. Aid workers estimate that at least 200 people have been killed since then.

President Wahid, who described sectarian fighting in the island group as "out of control" on June 26, promised the military would quickly restore order. But his comments came amid mounting signs that the military may have been part of the problem all along, underscoring the urgent need for reform in Indonesia's military.

To that end, armed forces spokesman, Graito Usodo, said that 1,400 troops who have become too "emotional" will be pulled out of the territory.

Few in Maluku trust the military to be neutral anymore. Police units have fought on the side of Christians, Army units on the side of Muslims. In an effort to win back some public trust, the military replaced the Maluku commander, Brig. Gen. Max Tameala, withCol. Made Yasa, aHindu fromBali, who may be perceived locally as neutral. In the past, however, personnel changes have not yielded results.

US State Department Spokesman Philip Reeker said the US is "especially troubled by the fact that security forces have proven either unwilling or unable to stop the violence."

Reached by phone, a resident in a Christian neighborhood in Ambon said, "They've declared a state of emergency and military-style mortars have been falling around my house all day." His comments were punctuated by explosions and automatic weapons fire. "Elements of the military have been stirring this up from day one," he said.

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The Christian University of Maluku and at least four Catholic churches have been mortared in recent days, and witnesses in Ambon also say the Jihad fighters have gained access to armored personnel carriers.

Fighting first broke out in Maluku, the fabled Spice Islands, more than a year ago, reflecting economic and social tensions between the predominantly Christian native population and the Muslim minority.

Though Indonesia is almost 90 percent Muslim, this area has traditionally been dominated by Christians. Though Indonesia has long been known for religious tolerance, there has always been a small group of fanatics who have wanted to convert mostly Christian eastern Indonesia.

In the first half of this year, the fighting had cooled as communities like Ambon City segregated themselves into Christian and Muslim quarters. Then in late May, fighters from the Laskar Jihad - a well-financed Islamic group based in Java and led by an Indonesian veteran of Afghanistan - began arriving in the territory, and fighting flared anew throughout the islands.

"Anyone who accuses us of massacres must be anti-Islam and are trying to discredit us," says Hilal Thalib, a Laskar Jihad spokesman and brother of its commander, Umar Thalib. "We're there to create peace, and we won't go until there is peace. We have weapons because everyone else has weapons."

Still, they have become the dominant force in the islands. The Laskar, which claims to have up to 3,000 armed paramilitaries in Maluku, is well-financed which makes it easy for them to move around. As outsiders in Maluku, they have little personal stake in a conflict that was as much about land and economic opportunity as religion when it started.

Analysts in Jakarta say disgruntled Army officers are backing the Laskar in the hopes of sowing chaos and sending a warning to Indonesia's civilian leaders to back off on corruption and human rights investigations.

A local military commander disputes that. "We are not cooperating with the Jihad. We've done our maximum to put an end to this," says Col. Sutrisno, the military commander for north Maluku, who is based in the capital of Ternate, where calls for a Jihad have continued echo.

Sutrisno has told aid workers that he can't guarantee their safety on nearby Halmahera, where there are more than 150,000 refugees, and almost all have withdrawn. Yet an Australian gold mine not far from the fighting there has been kept open, and mine workers have been able to come and go safely.

There are even signs that local Muslim paramilitaries are growing alarmed at the turn of events. Ambon Muslims, even ones that have participated in battles with Christians in the past, say they've been shocked by the brutality of the Laskar militia and are concerned that their presence can only ensure that the cycle of payback will be prolonged.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society