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Spice Islands Violence Erupts

January 3, 2000

AMBON, Indonesia (AP) _ New fighting broke out today between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia’s Spice Islands even as soldiers and police confiscated thousands of weapons in an effort to halt the violence.

Fifteen people were killed in a clash today on Halmahera Island in North Maluku province, a local military officer said.

The official Antara news agency reported that three other people were beaten to death in nearby Ternate, 1,600 miles east of Jakarta. The victims were among thousands of people seeking shelter from violence on Halmahera Island that has left 400 dead in the past week, the news agency said.

The atmosphere in the Maluku provincial capital, Ambon, was calm but tense today as security forces searched for weapons.

Ambon’s military chief, Lt. Col. Arif Mardiyanto, said four people had been arrested in the city after being caught with automatic weapons.

The provinces of Maluku and North Maluku, comprising hundreds of islands in eastern Indonesia, were together known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial rule.

About 1,300 people have died in the two provinces since religious fighting first erupted a year ago. Last week’s death toll in the region, estimated at 550, makes it the worst of any religious conflict in Indonesia’s 50-year history as an independent nation.

The bloody feud bodes ill for efforts by new President Abdurrahman Wahid to keep this ethnically and religiously diverse nation of 210 million people from fragmenting.

About 90 percent of Indonesia’s people are Muslims, but Christians are a majority in the Spice Islands.

Although the region used to be touted as a model of interfaith relations, tensions date back to 1950 when the Christians _ many with ties to the Dutch colonial administration _ battled Indonesian troops in a bid to secede.

More recently, animosity between the two groups has been stoked by an influx of Muslim migrants who have taken over the retail and transport businesses, formerly dominated by Christians.

Troops stood guard next to armored personnel carriers throughout Ambon today, watching for any new violence.

``The military sweep will focus on Ambon first before we move to other islands,″ Mardiyanto said.

He said most of the confiscated weapons were homemade, including daggers, pipe bombs, spears, bows and arrows.

Violence in the region subsided temporarily after the army dispatched 2,000 soldiers to assist police and marines.

Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela, chief of the Maluku military district, said two new battalions of army reinforcements arrived today.

The fighting has interrupted normal commerce, and some parts of the Ambon faced shortages of food and other staples. Vendors said there were shortages of rice and cooking oil.

At the city’s main market, a vendor who declined to be identified for fear of retribution said people were unable to bring supplies into the city because they were afraid of being shot.

``Prices have risen as there is very little food,″ the woman said.

Update hourly