At least 10 people were killed and a church and U.N. office torched on Sunday as Muslim and Christian residents of the eastern Indonesian city of Ambon fought pitched street battles, witnesses and police said.
Nearly 90 people were hurt and taken to hospitals as groups rampaged through the provincial capital of the Moluccas province in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Gunfire and explosions could be heard in several parts of the city and thick black smoke billowed into the air. It was not clear who was firing. The mobs were mostly using stones and knives.
“The victims are 98 in total, 10 of whom are dead. The number of victims could change,” Moluccas provincial police chief Brig. Gen. Bambang Sutrisno told Reuters by telephone. He did not say how the victims had died.
“The situation is under control now and we are tightening security. Police and soldiers will stay out in the field overnight. We have to investigate how this could happen.”
Thousands of people were killed in the Moluccas during nearly three years of sectarian conflict before a peace deal was agreed in early 2002. Civil emergency curbs were lifted last year.
Sunday’s clashes began after police arrested and then released a number of people for trying to raise the banned flag of a little known and mostly Christian rebel group, the South Moluccas Republic movement.
Novi Pinontuan, editor of the Suara Maluku newspaper in Ambon, told Reuters he had seen a church and a local U.N. coordinating office in flames and that hundreds of people rampaged through parts of the city.
“The office and four U.N. cars were in flames,” he said.
Caroline Tupamahu, the U.N. Development Program officer in charge in Ambon, said no staff had been hurt and only two local security guards had been at the office.
Residents said police fired shots in the air in an effort to break up the clashes.
Some 85 percent of Indonesia’s 220 million people are Muslim. In some eastern areas, however, the Christian and Muslim populations are about equal in size.