- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

POSO, Indonesia Thousands of Christian villagers have fled into the hills of Sulawesi island to escape an offensive by Muslim holy warriors linked by the government yesterday to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network.
Since arriving in Sulawesi in October, well-armed extremists of the Laskar Jihad militia have terrorized Christian villagers armed with only small guns, homemade weapons and knives. Five Christians were killed and five villages were seized in a three-day assault at the end of last month, police said.
Thousands of villagers from Poso district are now eking out a living in the highlands to avoid the wave of attacks. Some estimates of the number of displaced people across Sulawesi run as high as half a million.
Indonesia has seen thousands of casualties over the past three years as a result of religious, ethnic and separatist violence. But this eruption in central Sulawesi, about 1,000 miles northeast of Jakarta, has caught the attention of authorities because of the intervention of the Laskar Jihad militia, which normally is based on Indonesia's main island of Java.
The previously unknown militia is led by Jafar Umar Thalib, a comrade in arms with terror kingpin bin Laden in the campaign to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan during the 1980s.
The Laskar Jihad first came to public attention early last year when it set up a training camp near Jakarta and sent fighters to Maluku and North Maluku provinces, where their presence led to an escalation of Muslim-Christian conflicts.
The militia claims its forces are in Poso to defend Muslims, engage in social work and conduct religious education. But the Indonesian government says the movement is trying to seize territory from Christians in the north of Sulawesi, where they make up about half of the population.
Lt. Gen. Abdullah Hendropriyono, head of the national intelligence service, was quoted yesterday as saying that Laskar Jihad fighters were receiving aid from the al Qaeda network.
"The Poso problem is the result of cooperation between international terrorism and radical groups in the country," Mr. Hendropriyono told reporters after meeting President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Asked if that meant al Qaeda, he said, "That's what I am referring to."
It was the first official statement linking al Qaeda to Laskar Jihad, whose members denied a connection. A State Department document released this week by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta listed 45 countries where al Qaeda and affiliated groups had cells. The list, which included nearby nations such as Malaysia and the Philippines, did not name Indonesia.
What began as a dispute between Muslims and Christians over the control of the local Poso government in late 1998 escalated into widespread clashes between the two communities that took hundreds of lives.
"Religion was just used to create conflict with each other. It's multidimensional," said Agus Sugianto, police spokesman in the provincial capital of Palu. "Before the violence in Poso, Muslims and Christians lived beside each other."
Almost 90 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people are Muslim, but in Poso district, Christians have held a slight majority. They were the original inhabitants of the area but later were joined by Muslims who immigrated or were resettled from other parts of the archipelago.
In one of the worst single incidents, Christian forces executed dozens of Muslims in May 2000. A detailed report in Foreign Affairs magazine said 70 Muslims who had surrendered at a school were murdered with homemade guns and finished off with machetes.
In the days that followed, other Muslims were hunted down, their throats slashed and their bodies tossed into a river. Others were strung up on homemade wire nooses, the magazine said.
Fighting flared again in October after Laskar Jihad arrived. In Poso, Muslim holy warriors seized five villages during a three-day offensive that began on Nov. 27 and left five Christians dead.
"They came to the corner of the village and threw a bomb," said the commander of the Christian forces in Padalembara village. "Our houses and churches were destroyed."
Unable to resist the advance, the commander and more than 100 other men, women and children trekked for two days and nights through heavily forested mountains to the safety of a Christian area on the edge of Lore Lindu National Park.
More than 8,000 Christian refugees now are staying in an enclave. Thousands of other Christians in the town of Tentena, south of Poso town, fear they could be overrun or encircled by Muslim forces.
On Sulawesi's north coast between Palu and Poso, a heavily disputed swath of territory, official paramilitary security units patrol among Laskar Jihad observation posts.
The wooden shacks often fly black flags with Arabic writing. A few of the posts are decorated with posters of bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"They say there's an Osama bin Laden network here. There isn't," said Abu Umar, 27, chairman of Laskar Jihad's Central Sulawesi district. "We have different principles from Osama bin Laden, and we are not sympathetic to his struggle."
Mr. Umar said about 20 Laskar Jihad warriors in Poso fought the Soviets in Afghanistan or trained in the Philippines, but he denied reports that Afghans were serving alongside Indonesian Muslims in Poso.
"There are no Afghans who have deliberately come here to wage war," Mr. Umar, a former computer software marketer, said in an interview.
He also denied receiving assistance or sympathy from Indonesian army generals, rebutting a study last year of Islamic groups in Indonesia that said Laskar Jihad had "informal links" with active and retired Indonesian military officers.
Hundreds of paramilitary police reinforcements flew to Poso in recent weeks after the government announced a six-month effort to restore security and rebuild.
But many Christians in the region would prefer to see the government marshal the villagers in the fight against Laskar Jihad. Many Christians hope that, just as the United States has backed anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, they soon will be armed to fight.
"Then I'll shoot some Jihad," said a Christian fighter who gave his name as Anton, 24. "America hasn't helped us yet."

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