Tomb protesters call for Indonesian security force to be disbanded following deadly clashes

By Chris Blake, AP
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Protesters rally in Indonesia after deadly clash

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Hundreds of demonstrators descended Thursday on Jakarta’s City Hall to demand that the city’s public security force be disbanded following bloody clashes over a Muslim tomb that left two dead and 156 wounded near the Indonesian capital’s main seaport.

The protesters chanted “God is Great” and some threw rocks at a billboard bearing the photo of Jakarta’s governor. More than 1,000 police were deployed to the area, which is near the U.S. Embassy in central Jakarta, city spokesman Cucu Kurnia said.

On Wednesday, protesters wielding machetes, sticks and petrol bombs clashed with city security officers and riot police in running battles near the port outside the city the center. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and batons to beat back the demonstrators.

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

The fighting left the port area looking like a war zone, with blood and broken glass on the streets and dozens of vehicles burning. It was Jakarta’s worst civil unrest in years.

Two people were killed and 156 were wounded, according to Jakarta police spokesman Col. Boy Rafli Amar. Some of the injuries were severe, including an officer who had his stomach slashed and another whose hand was chopped off.

“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.

The protesters believed otherwise and attacked the city security officers, sparking running battles that lasted several hours. A second round of intense fighting that also involved the national police broke out hours later outside the hospital where the wounded had been taken. By nightfall the clashes had largely stopped, but the protesters still controlled the area.

City security officers differ from the national police in that they don’t carry guns and don’t have as many powers. They are often poorly paid and poorly trained and are regularly accused by rights groups of abuses against minorities and the poor.

The area remained tense Thursday, and customs officials said the main international container terminal would remain closed until the situation returned to normal.

“We had to defend ourselves and the legacy of our history, the grave of our Islamic hero, and casualties could not be avoided,” Abdul Qadir Assegaf, a religious leader in the port community, said Thursday. “We will continue to protect the tomb and our rights until our last blood.”

He accused the city officials of using excessive force and said their actions “showed us how arrogant city security officers can be in enforcing unpopular rule.”

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 were involved in the fighting and that they far outnumbered local protesters, but 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.

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.

Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini and Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report.

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