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Wednesday, March 10, 1999 Published at 16:43 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Death toll rises in Ambon riots

Muslim students gathered in Jakarta to protest against the violence

At least four people have been killed and 30 seriously injured in fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians on the Indonesian island of Ambon.

The latest fighting broke out in the city centre after dozens of houses were set alight. At one point troops opened fire to try to control the fighting which took place close to the centre of Ambon city.

"There are thousands of people in the streets. They are ready for war," an eyewitness is quoted as saying.

[ image: Much of Ambon city is a smouldering wreck following weeks of violence]
Much of Ambon city is a smouldering wreck following weeks of violence
One local resident said: "I have been hearing deafening explosions followed by gunshots ... I saw the military shoot at some people in the streets."

Last week 3,000 extra troops were sent into Ambon together with a special team of local military officers.

Earlier on Wednesday one man, a Christian, was found stabbed to death in a burnt-out market to the west of the city. In Muslim areas elsewhere on the island more than 40 homes were burnt to the ground.

Peace talks

According to the BBC's Jonathan Head, eyewitnesses say most of the smoke appeared to be in Muslim neighbourhoods, although accurate accounts of who is suffering most are impossible to come by.

The violence follows peace talks aimed at ending two months of clashes, in which over 200 people have died.

[ image: Hundreds of homes have been destroyed]
Hundreds of homes have been destroyed
The Indonesian military has sent a taskforce of army officers, Christian and Muslim, born in Ambon, along with more than 3,000 troops to the island but they have so far failed to stop the fighting.

The fighting has sparked a series of protests in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, from Muslims angry at the government's inability to end the clashes.

Holy War

On Wednesday, around 500 students gathered in the city's central Merdeka Square, outside the presidential palace, chanting "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great) and "Jihad! Jihad!" (Holy War).

Banners carried by the students blamed President BJ Habibie and armed force's chief General Wiranto for allowing the violence to spiral out of control.

Three students were allowed inside the presidential palace to deliver a statement addressed to Mr Habibie.

'Slow' response

[ image: Protesters in Jakarta are demanding the government protect the Muslims]
Protesters in Jakarta are demanding the government protect the Muslims
"We condemn the violence and murder of Moslems in Ambon," the statement said.

"We regret the slowness with which the government and the military reacted to the Ambon tragedy," it said, adding that the military should "seriously investigate" the "possible involvement of Christians and churches" in instigating the riots.

The students' statement said that if Muslims were to be investigated, then Christians should be too.

On Sunday, the capital saw the largest protest against the violence so far, when over 100,000 Muslims marched through the city.

[ image: Thousands have been fleeing to other provinces]
Thousands have been fleeing to other provinces
A similar protest took place in the west Javanese town of Bandung with protesters calling for General Wiranto to resign.

Inter-religious clashes erupted in Ambon in January following a dispute between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim passenger.

The incident sparked the worst sectarian violence to hit Indonesia in more than 15 years and tens of thousands of islanders have been trying to leave the islands to escape the trouble.

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