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Riots Paralyze Indonesian Capital

May 14, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _Indonesia sent tanks and armored personnel carriers into the streets of the capital today as frenzied looting and rioting challenged President Suharto’s grip on power. Up to 20 people were reported killed.

The embattled autocrat cut short a visit to Egypt and headed home in hopes of reasserting control over the troubled nation of 200 million, which is enduring its worst economic crisis in decades.

Plumes of thick smoke billowed across the Jakarta skyline as thousands of rioters set cars, tires, shops and houses ablaze in a frenzy of looting that continued into the night after the third straight day of unrest.

There were unconfirmed reports that at as many as 20 people were missing or killed after houses, shops, cars and offices were ransacked and set ablaze during the past three days. The military said four soldiers were killed.

The U.S. Embassy urged American citizens to defer nonessential travel to Indonesia and decided to evacuate family members of embassy staff. Japan and France also cautioned their citizens to stay away.

Mobs increasingly pushed toward the center of the city, along with lines of soldiers. Employees at the Jakarta Post English-language newspaper were evacuated as angry mobs closed in on their building.

Ambulances and fire trucks sped through riot-torn areas. Bonfires were lit on downtown streets that echoed with the sound of shots from police.

Witnesses said five men were wounded by gunfire. Others said they saw two men shot to death and three others injured in one downtown street battle today. Meanwhile, another mob burned a police station as officers fired back and a helicopter dropped tear gas canisters.

Everywhere, at every fire and smashed window, crowds clapped and shouted approval as rioters raged.

A dozen armored personnel carriers drove slowly in formation today through a district lined with government and commercial offices not far from the presidential palace.

Dozens of roads also were blocked off, creating chaos in the streets. However, officers were nowhere to be found in many areas, allowing mobs to run wild. Looting was matched by panicked buying, and many supermarkets were burned.

The house of Indonesia’s richest man, Liem Soei Liong, an ethnic Chinese billionaire with close links to Suharto, was trashed and burned. The headquarters of the Social Affairs Department, headed by Suharto’s oldest daughter, Cabinet Minister Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, was also gutted by fire.

The rioting paralyzed the capital of 11 million people, and fueled uncertainty over the political future of the world’s fourth most-populous nation.

Newspapers carried reports claiming that Suharto, the protesters’ target, could possibly step down. Lawmakers said they would discuss the issue next week.

But Foreign Minister Ali Alatas downplayed the possibility, saying the 76-year-old Suharto _ who has ruled for 32 years _ could only be replaced through a lengthy constitutional process. Suharto commands the loyalty of the government bureaucracy and the powerful military.

Many of the looted shops belonged to ethnic Chinese, a small minority who dominate commerce in Indonesia. Dozens of Chinese headed to the airport for flights out of the capital.

``Jakarta is on fire. We’ll go anywhere,″ said Siaumei Wen, a 27-year-old Chinese woman trying to buy plane tickets for her family. ``It’s a like a war zone.″

Indonesia is battling its worst economic crisis in 30 years. Inflation and unemployment have soared as the value of the currency has plummeted.

The latest unrest exploded last week after Suharto introduced new austerity measures under a $43 billion rescue plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

Many looters today were angry over rising food prices and reduced subsidies on fuel, transport and electricity.

Update hourly