Fresh fighting sparks refugee crisis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2000, 12:00am

Civil unrest in North Maluku, which officials said had gone away, has claimed scores of fresh victims in continued fighting, and brought a new refugee crisis.

Despite a regular flow of detailed intelligence on the issue, the Government has offered no new initiative or signs of concern about the apparent religious war raging across Halmahera and Moratai islands, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives, in addition to hundreds killed further south along the island chain in Maluku province.

Some of the information points directly to the involvement of Jakarta-based politicians in the conflict, and confirms the arrival of organised groups of Muslim fighters in Christian areas of North Maluku.

Official reports last week admitted that up to 30 people had been killed in fresh outbreaks of fighting. Local sources say scores more have been killed as Muslim 'warriors' gain dominance over the Christian north.

The casualties are high on both sides of the religious divide, and neither Christian nor Muslim can claim any moral superiority.

'The latest fighting was mainly on Moratai and in Galela [a town on north Halmahera],' said a reliable informant in neighbouring Sulawesi, who is in daily contact with North Maluku.

'Christian villages on Moratai are now destroyed totally and the people don't know where to go.' Months of village warfare in North Maluku began in the southwest of the province, on the island sultanates of Ternate and Tidore, before moving northward on to the largest island in the group, Halmahera, from which fighting has spread northeast to Moratai.

Clashes were at first sparked by local land and political disputes, fuelled by longstanding ethnic rivalries. But they have been overtaken by an agenda for religious war, or jihad, which stems from circles in Jakarta and around Java.

'When bodies of Muslim fighters are found, we check their identity cards [which list religion and home village]. It is clear they are coming from all over Java. So you see this is not a home-grown problem any more,' the sources said.

'Yes, you can say the Muslims are certainly winning,' he said.

'The situation is very bad. Many people have lost everything. And if people want to flee, where can they go?' Some refugees from Moratai have sailed to north Halmahera, but even in the northwestern district of Laloda there were at least two serious attacks on Christians in February.

As for the armed forces (TNI), its neutrality cannot be assured. Another informant reported that troops in Moratai were not neutral, leading to more Christian deaths there, whereas in Galela, soldiers had tried to protect local residents.

'Up to now, we have heard nothing from Jakarta,' the Sulawesi-based source said. 'We have only a very small hope. It is clear that I cannot go back to Halmahera for years, maybe never.' Jakarta has tried to portray the conflict as dying down amid fresh efforts by church and mosque-based groups for reconciliation talks in Ambon, in the southern Malukus, while access for independent observers to the northern areas of fighting remains almost impossible.