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Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 18:46 GMT 19:46 UK
Moluccan islanders' desperate flight
Muslim refugees gather in a Catholic church
Thousands of islanders have fled their homes
By Paul Anderson

The passenger ferry feared sunk off the coast of Indonesia exposes the lengths to which the Moluccan islanders - Christians and Muslims - will go to escape the escalating violence.

By the latest estimates, nearly 35,000 people have been displaced in a sectarian war which flared up 18 months ago and which has claimed the lives of thousands.

Officials say that after the upsurge in violence last week refugee numbers are rising rapidly.

Many of them - Christians and Muslims - have fled to more than 80 camps near the main city of Ambon.

President Wahid
President Wahid has sent in more troops
But their fear is that the overtly partisan military guarding them is in itself more cause for alarm than reassurance.

The Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, has ordered in fresh troops to counter the religious bias on both sides.

But the measure has not worked in the past, and there is no guarantee it will work now.

Agencies pull out

Meanwhile, international aid organisations say it has become too dangerous to work in the Moluccas.

On Wednesday, the medical agency Medecins sans Frontieres said it was suspending nearly all its humanitarian operations in Muslim as well as Christian areas, for fear of snipers and confrontation with armed groups.

Destroyed shops, Moluccas
Hundreds of homes have been destroyed
Tens of thousands of refugees were out of reach of humanitarian aid, the agency said, warning that some medical supplies and services would be exhausted in days, and that the supply of drinking water to some camps had already stopped.

Medecins sans Frontieres called for humanitarian corridors to be opened to provide essential relief.

Earlier this week, President Wahid declared a state of civil emergency across the islands, extending the military's freedom to carry out security raids on suspected militants.

The Indonesian Government has so far resisted calls for international mediation in the conflict, saying it is an internal matter.

But there is little sign, or indeed prospect, of moves towards peace on the ground.

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See also:

29 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Moluccas refugees feared drowned
27 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia loses faith in Moluccas troops
25 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Civil war looms in Moluccas
10 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Fears grow over Moluccas jihad
21 Mar 99 | SPECIAL REPORT
Ambon's troubled history
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