JAKARTA (Reuters) - Renewed trouble in Indonesia’s central Sulawesi island, long the site of deadly Christian-Muslim rivalry, underscores how communal tensions may help reinvigorate the country’s militant Islamic movement.
The latest violence, on January 22, began with a police raid in the city of Poso on Muslim militants suspected of attacks on local Christians, including the 2005 beheadings of three schoolgirls.
Fourteen people were killed in the fighting between authorities and militants, which followed a smaller operation against the same suspects 11 days earlier.
Analysts and security experts say these incidents illustrate the larger forces at work as the world’s most populous Muslim nation struggles to contain an armed fringe demanding imposition of Islamic rule across Southeast Asia.
“Communal fights like Poso attract a wide range of activists to defend fellow Muslims, not just hardcore militants,” said one Western security official who follows the issue closely.
“Once blooded, they are more easily recruited into overtly militant groups, like JI,” the analyst said.
Jemaah Islamiah, or JI, is the region’s biggest militant movement and its members have been linked to a series of major bomb blasts in Jakarta and on the resort island of Bali that have killed almost 250 people since 2002.
Around 85 percent of Indonesia’s 220 million people are Muslims, but some areas in eastern Indonesia like Poso have roughly equal numbers of Muslim and Christians.
The area has been tense since the execution of three Christian militants in September over their role in violence against Muslims from 1998 to 2001.
More than 2,000 people died in communal fighting in central Sulawesi before a peace accord took effect in late 2001. There has been sporadic violence ever since.
Police said on Monday that a man captured during the January 11 raid had confessed to shooting to death a Christian priest last year as he shopped for ceramic tiles in a Poso store.
“Abdul Muis confessed that he was the executioner,” provincial police chief Badrotin Haiti told Reuters. He said Muis’ accomplice in the shooting was killed during the raid.
In a report on the clashes, the International Crisis Group think tank said the first raid, on Poso’s Tanah Runtuh district, had drawn armed sympathizers, or “mujahideen”, from the island of Java and elsewhere to defend local Muslims from the police.
“The presence of outside mujahideen, including from Java, complicates the Indonesia government’s task enormously,” the ICG report said.
Police say among those arrested were fighters trained in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines, and report seizing bombs and supplies of ammunition.
Analysts say the heavy-handed police tactics could dangerously inflame militants’ antipathy for the state as “anti-Islamic” and cause the unrest, which has been largely localized so far, to spread to other regions.
Finally, the second police raid, in which a local teenager and two other bystanders were killed, has drawn some fire from mainstream Muslim groups and the press.
On Monday, a police spokesman said the authorities had released 10 of those arrested in the raid, adding credence to critics’ assertions they had overreached during the crackdown.
The Poso incident comes at a crucial time for Jemaah Islamiah, on the defensive amid signs of an internal split over tactics and a loss of whatever tacit support it may have enjoyed among mainstream Muslims.
The authorities have also made real progress in disrupting the group’s networks, interdicting the flow of illicit cash needed for large-sale attacks, and arresting or killing a number of operatives.
A four-year run of major blasts — in what some analysts dubbed the “bombing season” between August and October — was broken when 2006 passed without such an incident. And U.S. and Australian fears of attacks in Jakarta over Christmas also failed to materialize.