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Sunday, February 21, 1999 Published at 13:31 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Ambon runs short of food

Thousands lost their homes in the riots

By South East Asia Correspondent Jonathan Head

Indonesia's oldest church now lies in ruins. The Dutch built the Immanuel Church in Hila back in 1780, using some of the huge wealth they made from the spices cultivated on Ambon.

One night of communal violence last month reduced the church and surrounding houses to a pile of charred rubble.

It also drove out the Christians who have lived there for centuries. The Muslim village head said he regretted the violence and that he wished his Christian neighbours would come back one day, but he was doubtful.

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On the road to Hila, across Ambon's verdant mountains, I passed village after village which had been burnt to the ground, most of them Christian.

On the south side of the island and inside the city of Ambon, Muslims are the main victims. Tens of thousands of recent Muslim immigrants from other parts of Indonesia are now preparing to leave Ambon.

Living in fear

On either side of the island men with machetes have put up road-blocks. They say it is to prevent further attacks by rival gangs, but it is also enforcing the separation of Muslim and Christian communities.

There is very little traffic for them to stop, in any case. I was only allowed to travel north with an armed police escort. They were all Christians and extremely nervous about entering what has now become exclusively Muslim territory.

But the biggest concern of the village head in Hila was food. "Without transport we can't sell our spices," he said, and the lack of supplies has forced up the price of basic goods.

The governor of Ambon has promised to give financial help to all those affected by the riots, but it is unlikely that the island will ever recover its former reputation for religious and ethnic tolerance.

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