WASHINGTON (BP)–Armed militants rampaged through a predominantly Christian village in Indonesia’s Maluku province during the early morning hours of April 28, killing 14 people and prompting fears that a peace deal reached in February may be dead, CNSNews.com reported April 29.
A six-month-old baby and four-year-old child were among those killed. Locals and police believe the attackers were Muslims. Victims were either stabbed, shot or burned to death, a Catholic priest said by phone April 29.
Eyewitnesses said the men were masked, dressed in black and armed with firearms and knives when they stormed Soya village, five kilometers from the provincial capital, Ambon.
A church and some 30 homes were torched during the raid.
Some villagers said a number of the attackers had worn Indonesian military (TNI) uniforms and carried M-16 rifles with bayonets attached.
Army spokesman Major Herry Suhardy denied soldiers were involved, saying “any rioter could use [a] TNI uniform. Such an act is an attempt to discredit the TNI.”
Hundreds of troops were sent into the area and a nighttime curfew was enforced in a bid to prevent further outbreaks of violence.
Two days before the attacks, the leader of a radical Islamic militia told supporters in Ambon to ignore the February peace accord, which many hoped would end more than three years of sectarian violence in Maluku.
Laskar Jihad commander Jafar Umar Thalib told thousands of Muslims attending a rally after Friday mosque prayers April 26 that it was not the time for peace in Maluku.
“From today, we will no longer talk about reconciliation,” Jafar was quoted as saying. He also reportedly called the provincial governor a traitor and the peace deal “treason.”
Muslims at the rally tried to march toward Christian areas, precipitating a tense standoff with armed police.
Laskar Jihad, a group headquartered on the main Indonesian island of Java, sent thousands of fighters to Maluku after violence erupted in January 1999.
Many Christians blame the group for much of the bloodshed that has since ravaged the area, while also accusing elements in the military of colluding in the violence. Estimates of fatalities from both communities range from 6,000 to 9,000.
When Christian and Muslim representatives reached a government-brokered peace deal in February, some observers expressed skepticism that the truce would hold, since it failed to demand the removal from Maluku of the Laskar Jihad fighters.
Cornelius Bohm of the Catholic Crisis Center said April 29 there was little doubt Laskar Jihad was behind the Sunday attacks. Witness accounts said the attackers spoke in the Javanese language and with Javanese accents, the priest said by phone from Ambon.
Christians widely believed there could be no peace until the jihad warriors were forced to return home, added Bohm, who has been at the center since it was opened six months after the religious violence began.
“It’s not possible [for peace to be achieved] because they have only one goal, to Islamize the whole of Indonesia, make it a Muslim state under shari’a law. They won’t stop before they have attained that goal,” he said.
“I feel very disappointed with the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims who just let their religion be abused by this handful of terrorists.”
Jafar’s call to arms was in response to the commemoration a day earlier by a separatist-minded, mostly Christian group of a short-lived independence bid half a century ago.
Despite a government crackdown, including a news blackout, curfews and arrests, supporters of the Maluku Sovereignty Front (FKM) went ahead with plans to raise banned flags on the 52nd anniversary April 25 of the declaration of the breakaway South Maluku Republic.
Christians comprise about half the population in the Maluku islands in the otherwise Muslim-dominated Indonesia. The republic was declared in 1950 by nationalists wanting sovereignty apart from the newly declared republic of Indonesia.
The breakaway movement — which most local churches repudiate — was revived in 2000 under the name FKM amid claims by Christians that the state was not protecting them from Muslim attacks.
Laskar Jihad has accused the FKM of spearheading violence against Muslims in the province. The Laskar Jihad website, which bears a banner proclaiming “Victory or martyrdom — jihad in Ambon,” describes the movement as “subversive” and “traitorous.”
Bohm said most Christians are opposed to the FKM “fanaticism.” When Christians see the republican flags flying they don’t rejoice, he said. Rather, it simply causes anxiety about the expected Muslim retaliation.
Echoing fears that the peace deal may be dead, Bohm noted that Laskar Jihad’s influence was “definitely increasing” since the Java-based leader Jafar’s arrival in the area. Had Jafar not delivered the provocative speech April 26, he said, there may still have been Muslim reaction to the FKM flag-raising episode, “but not slaughtering people, women and children, in that cruel way.”
Jafar is thought to have ties with some leading Indonesian politicians. Bohm said Christians were convinced the government was afraid to crack down on Laskar Jihad for fear of triggering violence elsewhere in the country.
Witnesses, including visiting U.S. pastors, late last year reported seeing Laskar Jihad members manning roadblocks in another violence-hit province, Central Sulawesi, displaying large pictures of Osama bin Laden, along with such slogans as “he is our leader.”
The organization has denied having any links with bin Laden, whom the U.S. holds responsible for last Sept. 11’s terror attacks in New York and Washington.
Although Jafar confirms having met the Saudi-born terrorist chief when both were fighting in Afghanistan against Soviet forces there, he has said he opposes what bin Laden stands for.
Goodenough is the Pacific Rim bureau chief with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.