Indonesia yesterday rushed 200 extra police to a district in Sulawesi island where masked attackers beheaded three Christian teenagers in the latest suspected attack by Muslim extremists.
Provincial and district officials in Central Sulawesi urged residents not to be provoked by the attack, which brought strong condemnation from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and others including the Pope.
One Christian teenager survived Saturday’s attack with a machete wound to her face and the back of her head. She was moved Sunday from the town of Poso, scene of numerous earlier sectarian battles, to a police hospital in the provincial capital on Palu.
Nofiana Malewa is in stable condition, said hospital staffer Supriyanto.
She and several other friends were walking home from the Central Sulawesi Christian high school in Poso when they were attacked. Three girls were found later with their heads severed.
Malewa told police the killings were carried out by six black-clad men wearing masks.
Pope Benedict XVI yesterday offered condolences to the families of three teenagers, deploring the attacks as “barbaric murder.” “When he learned the sad news of the barbaric murder of three Christian girls in Indonesia, the Pope asked Indonesian Bishop Joseph Theodorus Suwatan to ‘present the most sincere condolences to the families of the victims and to the diocese’,” spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church will pray “for the return of peace between these peoples.”
Poso district was the scene of major Muslim-Christian unrest between 2000 and 2001 in which up to 1,000 people were killed. The Government brokered a peace deal in December 2001 but intermittent violence has continued.
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-populated nation but Christians and Muslims live in roughly equal numbers in parts of the eastern island chain of Sulawesi and in Maluku.
National police chief General Sutanto yesterday visited the scene of the crime and met local police chiefs, said an officer on duty at Poso police station who identified himself as Sofyan.
Sofyan confirmed that 200 police reinforcements, from East Kalimantan and Jakarta, had arrived in the town.
Local news radio quoted Central Sulawesi police chief Oegroseno as saying that so far two witnesses, including Malewa, have been questioned. The identity of the other witness was not given.
National and provincial police spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Muslim extremists have been linked to bombings, shootings and other attacks targeting Christians in the Poso area since 2001 but these appear to be the first recent beheadings.
– BBC Profile: Indonesia
Poso has seen several home-made bomb explosions in the past month which caused minimal damage and no casualties.
In May two bomb attacks killed 22 people at a market in the neighbouring coastal town of Tentena.
Police said the Tentena bombings were the work of Islamic militants with possible links to Jemaah Islamiyah. Others say the attack was politically motivated.
Authorities have linked Jemaah Islamiyah to numerous deadly bombings elsewhere in Indonesia.