18 Dead in Spice Islands Violence
AMBON, Indonesia (AP) _ New fighting erupted Monday between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia’s Spice Islands, leaving at least 18 more people dead even as soldiers and police confiscated thousands of weapons in an effort to halt the violence.
Fifteen people were killed when the warring sides clashed on Halmerah island in North Maluku province, 1,600 miles east of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, a local military officer said. In North Maluku’s provincial capital, Ternate, three Halmerah residents trying to flee the violence were beaten to death, the official Antara news agency reported.
It was just the latest episode in a recent flareup of violence in the region. Fighting in Maluku and North Maluku, which together were known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial rule, claimed more than 550 lives last week. About 1,300 people have died in the two provinces since religious fighting first erupted a year ago.
The Spice Islands are just one of several parts of Indonesia racked by unrest. But while most of the troubled areas are itching to break away from Indonesia, the conflict in the Spice Islands is fueled mainly by religious antagonism between Christians and Muslims.
About 90 percent of Indonesia’s 210 million people are Muslims, making it the world’s most populous Islamic nation. Religious minorities, including Christians, are often the targets of violence. Unlike other parts of the sprawling Southeast Asian nation, the Christians and Muslim communities are roughly equal in size in Maluku and North Maluku.
The atmosphere was peaceful but tense Monday in Maluku’s provincial capital, Ambon, as soldiers and police confiscated thousands of weapons in an effort to halt the violence. The port city’s military chief, Lt. Col. Arif Mardiyanto, said four people were arrested after being caught carrying automatic weapons.
Troops stood guard next to armored personnel carriers throughout Ambon, 350 miles south of Ternate, 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 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 Monday. They joined three other battalions totaling about 2,000 men who landed last week in effort to boost the provinces’ undermanned garrison.