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Jakarta Mall Fire Said To Kill 100

May 15, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ A fire raced through a shopping mall in eastern Jakarta on Friday, trapping looters on the fourth straight day of rioting in Indonesia’s capital. Witnesses said as many as 100 people died.

There was no official confirmation of the death toll.

President Suharto, Asia’s longest-serving leader, cut short a trip to Cairo to return home early Friday to deal with the crisis. He went immediately into meetings with Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie and Defense Minister Gen. Wiranto.

The looters died when they were trapped inside a shopping mall set ablaze by other rioters, witnesses said.

With relatives wailing around them, residents banded together to take away the bodies, which were burned and blackened beyond recognition. Police and rescue officials were nowhere in sight at the mall, located near slums in the Kelender section of eastern Jakarta.

With Suharto’s leadership pushed to the brink, all eyes were on Indonesia’s mighty military leaders.

Unrest intensified last week after Suharto introduced new austerity measures under a $43 billion rescue plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund to overcome Indonesia’s worst economic crisis in decades.

In a television address, Lt. Gen. Prabowo, the president’s hard-line son-in-law, said there was no split within the armed forces, and repeated threats take firm action against rioters.

Soldiers, backed up by tanks, were posted at key points throughout the city. A local radio station reported battles between rioters and residents in the Cenkarang district near Jakarta international airport.

Opposition leaders were becoming increasingly vocal in their demands for Suharto to quit. Amien Rais, a powerful Muslim leader, formed a new alliance with other opposition members and prominent university figures. The new assembly was immediately dubbed a ``shadow parliament.″

Suharto touched down at a heavily guarded air force base before dawn, after cutting short a trip to Egypt.

He drove to his official residence under heavily armed escort through areas shaken by riots and looting the previous day.

The violence, in which at least 20 civilian and four military personnel have been reportedly killed, threatens to unravel Suharto’s 32-year grip on power.

As thousands of students staged bold but largely peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, mobs of mainly poor people pillaged shops, offices and banks, throwing stones and burning down hundreds of homes and buildings.

Anger spilled over into the streets after police shot dead six anti-government protesters at a student protest on Tuesday.

After troops failed to stem much of Thursday’s destruction, the military commanders called on their forces to crack down on rioters.

By sunrise, tanks and armored personnel carriers were positioned at several spots downtown.

Squads of riot police and troops patrolled the streets.

Much of the city of 11 million people appeared calm early in the morning, although there were reports of looting and arson in some outlying areas.

Jakarta’s airport was crowded with frightened residents trying to leave the country.

Hotels were packed as others abandoned their homes. Many of them were ethnic Chinese. Although they make up only a tiny fraction of the 200 million population, they dominate commerce and industry and have become scapegoats in the present crisis.

Suharto, a 76-year-old retired army general, used the might of the army to grab power amid social and economic turmoil after he put down an abortive communist coup in 1965.

Since then, he has refused to name a successor and has ruthlessly cracked down on critics to keep opposition groups weak.

Newspapers carried reports Thursday quoting Suharto as saying he was willing step down if people no longer trusted him. Lawmakers said they would discuss the issue next week.

But Foreign Minister Ali Alatas played down the possibility, saying Suharto could be replaced only through a lengthy constitutional process.

Update hourly