Muslim-Christian Peace Talks Under Way in Indonesia

To End Conflict That Has Caused 10,000 Deaths

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JAKARTA, Indonesia, FEB. 11, 2002 ( Warring Christians and Muslims from Indonesia´s Molucca province began two days of peace talks today, aiming to end one of the bloodiest conflicts in Southeast Asia.

Up to 10,000 people have been killed in fighting that erupted in the archipelago in January 1999 and now involves paramilitaries from Indonesia´s main island of Java, the Associated Press reported.

Welfare Minister Jusuf Kalla planned separate meetings with the two delegations of religious and community leaders in a resort hotel in Malino in south Sulawesi, 1,000 miles northeast of Jakarta, according to media reports.

«We have to be optimistic. This is not only a problem concerning Muslims and Christians (in the Moluccas) but a national Indonesian problem,» said Tony Pariela said, a member of the Christian delegation.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in the province known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial rule. The old capital of Ambon was devastated by fighting and its two communities are now divided by a strip of no man´s land.

Fighting escalated sharply in mid-2000 when thousands of fighters belonging to the Laskar Jihad militia (or Holy War Troops) arrived from Java.

The paramilitaries attacked and burned dozens of Christian villages, with army troops joining attacks on Christian neighborhoods in Ambon, located about 1,600 miles northeast of Jakarta.

Former President Abdurrahman Wahid´s administration claimed the sectarian conflict was started by hard-line army commanders opposed to civilian rule after decades of military-backed dictatorship.

The violence decreased in mid-2001, when then Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri ousted Wahid. The army brass backed Megawati´s rise to power and her administration has ended efforts to introduce civilian rule over the armed forces.

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