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17 Killed in Indonesian Violence

July 27, 1999

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in eastern Indonesia and attacks by separatist rebels in the far west left 17 people dead Tuesday.

Mobs rampaged in Ambon, the capital of the Maluku archipelago, looting and setting ablaze dozens of shops in sectarian violence between Christian and Muslim residents, officials and witnesses said.

Clashes between the rival groups have wracked the province, 1,450 miles east of Jakarta, that was known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial rule. More than 300 people died during similar violence in January.

Police initially attempted to disperse hundreds of looters by firing tear gas and warning shots into the air. But when the gangs _ armed with rocks, machetes, lances, arrows and gasoline bombs _ failed to scatter, officers were seen firing directly into the crowds.

Paing Suryaman, an official of Al-Fatah hospital, the city’s main hospital, said nine Muslims were killed and 32 others were hospitalized, mostly with gunshot wounds.

At least five members of Ambon’s majority Christian community were killed in the clashes, witnesses said.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of Indonesia, about 1,100 miles northwest of Jakarta, an army sergeant died and two soldiers were wounded in an exchange of fire with rebels of the Free Aceh Movement.

In a separate incident, a police sergeant and his teen-age son also were fatally shot by suspected rebels.

The guerrillas are fighting for the independence of the gas- and oil-rich region. Government forces have responded with mass repression, often against local villagers.

Over the weekend, a special counterinsurgency unit killed up to 41 people in the region. Army commanders said the dead were rebel fighters, but human rights activists maintain the victims were villagers killed after being rounded up at a prayer meeting.

Almost 200 people, including several dozen members of the security forces, have died in the fighting in the past three months. Up to 80,000 villagers have fled to outlying areas to escape intensifying combat.

Update hourly