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Sunday, 28 April, 2002, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Who are the Laskar Jihad?
Muslim rally
There have been repeated calls for a Jihad
The latest attacks on Christians in Indonesia's eastern Moluccan Islands are the most serious since a peace deal was signed in February to try to end three years of sectarian conflict.

That agreement was rejected by the leader of the extremist Islamic group Laskar Jihad, who addressed a crowd of thousands in strife-torn Ambon.

Jafar Umar Thalib called on all Muslims in the Moluccan Islands to launch a renewed war against the Christian community, saying the peace agreement should be ignored.

The agreement, mediated by central government officials, called on "outsiders that bring chaos" to leave the region. Both sides agreed to end violence, ban all armed militias and set up joint patrols.

Moluccas violence

Laskar Jihad is a paramilitary organisation which claims 15,000 members. It has sent hundreds of warriors from Java to eastern Indonesia, where they have been involved in attacks on Christians.

The fighting in the eastern Moluccas has left more than 6,000 people dead and forced 750,000 to flee their homes since January 1999.

Jafar Umar Thalib is believed to have close ties to the former regime of ex-dictator Suharto.

Some US officials have also voiced concerns that Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network could be helping Laskar Jihad.

Mr Thalib, a 40-year-old Afghan war veteran, denies having links with al-Qaeda, although he met Bin Laden in Pakistan in 1987.

Anti-Christian message

A recent CIA assessment said Indonesia - an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands - could become an attractive hideout for Al-Qaeda.

soldier, ambon
The security forces have failed to contain the fighting
But analysts point out that Laskar Jihad has a domestic agenda that only targets Christians in conflict areas.

The group accuses Christians in the Moluccas of pushing for their own homeland - just as mainly Catholic East Timor seceded from Indonesia in 1999.

Laskar Jihad has established a stronghold in Kebon Cengkih, a village in the hills above Ambon, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

A recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think-tank says Laskar Jihad's "self-justification for its presence in Ambon depends on continuation of the conflict".

Papua tensions

Laskar Jihad is also reported to have stepped up its activities in Papua province, formerly known as Irian Jaya.

Smoke rises over Ambon
Muslims and Christians are segregated in troubled Ambon
Papua is home to one million Christians and animists, with a small Muslim minority.

Indonesian Christian leaders have repeatedly accused the security forces of turning a blind eye to Laskar Jihad. Some people believe the military may even be arming them as well.

Army commanders have previously used proxy militias to wage war - most notoriously in East Timor.

Mr Thalib insists that his group's mission is to forge a spiritual form of jihad through preaching, not fighting.

But he has also warned more ominously that the volunteers are prepared for "attacks by enemies".

He says Laskar Jihad will not abandon its "humanitarian" mission - it runs a clinic and school in Kebon Cengkih.

The group aims to introduce Muslim Sharia law in Indonesia, where Muslims form about 85% of the population of 210 million.

See also:

28 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Muslim mob attacks Indonesia Christians
26 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Moluccas brace for more trouble
25 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Moluccan Muslims set fire to church
22 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Moluccan separatist charged with treason
12 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Moluccan peace deal
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