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Machete-wielding protesters rumble in Jakarta

Protesters wielding machetes, sticks and petrol bombs clash with riot police in a series of deadly running battles over a Muslim cleric's tomb near the Indonesian capital's main port.
Image: Burned cars in Jakarta following clashes between protesters and members of the security forces
Burned cars in Jakarta on Thursday, following clashes between protesters and members of the security forces. Adek Berry / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Protesters wielding machetes, sticks and petrol bombs clashed with riot police in a series of running battles Wednesday over a Muslim cleric's tomb near the Indonesian capital's main seaport, leaving two people dead and some 130 wounded.

Some of the injuries were severe, including an officer who had his stomach slashed and another whose hand was chopped off. It was Jakarta's worst civil unrest in years.

About 2,000 city security officers and 600 police used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and batons to beat back the protesters near the seaport of Tanjung Priok in northern Jakarta, city spokesman Cucu Kurnia said. Police estimated the number of protesters at 500.

The demonstrators threw rocks and petrol bombs, setting fire to at least five police vehicles and destroying dozens of others.

An Associated Press photographer saw several protesters beaten by police and dragged away bleeding, including teenagers. Fist fights broke out and burning tires and cars sent a cloud of black smoke over the port.

The protesters believed city officials were trying to remove the tomb of an Arab cleric who helped spread Islam in North Jakarta in the 18th century. The tomb is located on land owned by the state-run seaports operator Pelindo II. The area is home to many squatters.

Two people were killed in the clashes and the death toll could increase, deputy national police spokesman Col. Zaenuri Lubis told reporters late Wednesday.

The demonstration began in the morning when hundreds of security officials showed up near the tomb with excavators. Kurnia denied the tomb was the target, saying the city wanted to remove illegal squatters nearby.

"We did not intend to demolish the tomb, but we want to evict the illegal settlers. In fact, the local government wanted to preserve or restore the tomb," Kurnia said.

Running clashes
The protesters believed otherwise and attacked city officials, sparking running battles that lasted several hours. A second round of intense fighting broke out hours later outside the hospital where the wounded had been taken. By nightfall the clashes had stopped, but the situation was still tense.

Protesters maintained control of the area around the tomb and some 500 security forces had to be evacuated to a nearby police station by boat because leaving by road would have likely led to more clashes, said Bambang Ervan, a spokesman at the transportation ministry.

Just after midnight, several hundred protesters set fire to five security vehicles parked outside the hospital, Metro TV reported. The flare-up came a short time after senior government and police officials visited the hospital.

Kurnia said authorities were surprised by the response of those living near the tomb.

"The mass anger was horrible and beyond our expectation for what was a simple case," he said.

Kurnia said members of a hard-line Muslim group also were involved in the fighting.

"The locals were supported by a mass organization who outnumbered the locals by twofold," he said.

Kurnia declined to name the group. He may have been referring to the Islamic Defenders Front, an organization with a long history of vandalizing nightspots, hurling stones at Western embassies, and torching buildings belonging to rival groups or sects it considers heretical.

Stirring up violence
Jakarta police chief Maj. Gen. Wahyono, who uses a single name, said 130 people were wounded, including 79 security forces. Kurnia said seven were in critical condition, including a security officer who had his stomach slashed open with a machete, and another whose hand was cut off.

Kurnia accused people upset over the land dispute of misleading people and using their religious beliefs to stir up violence.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed concern and regret over the clashes and ordered an investigation. He also called on Jakarta's governor to meet all parties involved and put any evictions in the area on hold until a solution can be reached.