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Indonesia Death Toll Hits 165

February 23, 2001

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SAMPIT, Indonesia (AP) _ Thousands of people were fleeing brutal ethnic clashes on the Indonesian part of Borneo island Friday as police said the violence _ which has so far claimed at least 165 lives _ was getting worse.

A navy landing craft and two transport ships were speeding to the river port at Sampit to pick up refugees from the fighting between native Dayak people and immigrants from Madura island, officials said. The ships, which were due to arrive Friday night, can accommodate 7,000 people.

The refugees, mostly Madurese and other non-native groups, were to be evacuated to the port of Surabaya on Java island, officials said. Other refugees were heading overland to other parts of the province to flee the fighting.

In Sampit, a town about 480 miles northeast of Jakarta, the bodies of about 30 adults and children lay outside the hospital in a bloody heap. Some of the corpses were headless.

Komaruddin Sukhemi, a doctor at the hospital, said 165 people had been confirmed dead. Officials said the death toll was likely to rise.

Many houses in Sampit were on fire as trucks full of armed Dayaks patrolled the streets. Dayak gangs armed with machetes and daggers have paraded the severed heads of Madurese victims around the town. Two joint police and military battalions were being deployed to reinforce overwhelmed local security forces.

``The situation is getting worse,″ said regional police chief Brig. Gen. Bambang Pranoto. ``The riots are spreading to other towns where there are still many Madurese.″

This week’s killings on Borneo, shared between Indonesia and Malaysia, began Sunday. They are the latest in a series of bloody outbreaks of violence there: In the past several years, hundreds have died in clashes in the area, most sparked by land disputes between the Dayaks and the Madurese immigrants.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department urged American citizens not to travel to Indonesia, warning that unrest and violence could break out at any time. And as the slaughter continued, the World Bank warned on Friday that Indonesia could be headed for an economic collapse unless the government stops rampant violence and restores political stability.

``Regional unrest, and political and ethnic tensions threaten national unity,″ the bank said in a statement.

For decades, former dictator Suharto used his security forces to crush any public unrest, keeping the lid on tensions between Indonesia’s many ethnic and religious groups. But since his ouster in 1998, violence has flared throughout the archipelago. Efforts by the new democratic government to resolve the multiple crises have largely failed.

Thousands have been killed in fighting between troops and separatist rebels in Aceh province and between Christians and Muslims in the Maluku islands. In Irian Jaya, an upsurge of violence has claimed dozens of lives since December, when separatists hoisted independence flags. In addition, dozens have died in unexplained terrorist bombings in several major cities, including the capital, Jakarta.

On Thursday, embattled President Abdurrahman Wahid left Indonesia for a 14-day trip to the Middle East and Africa, telling reporters he was unconcerned about leaving amid the renewed violence.

In Borneo, tens of thousands of people, mostly Madurese, have resettled in central Kalimantan province over the past 40 years. The government transmigration program that brought them here was designed to relieve overcrowding in other areas, but it has sparked resentment among the Dayak natives.

Since the latest fighting began, frightened residents of Sampit have been flooding the central Kalimantan provincial capital of Palangkaraya some 130 miles away. Police had arrested 80 people in the past few days, including two local government officials they accuse of inciting the violence.

Church worker Natalia, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said gangs of Dayak men carrying daggers and other homemade weapons were burning empty houses belonging to settlers.

``We are really afraid since there are not many police here,″ she said.

Update hourly