Indonesian police comb hills for killers

Dozens of investigators combed the hills with specially trained dogs on Tuesday to search for any clues left by masked assailants who beheaded three Christian school girls and injured a fourth.

Religious leaders and residents in the tense province of Central Sulawesi pressed the government for answers.

Authorities worry that Saturday’s attack outside Poso, a town long plagued by Muslim-Christian violence, could spark retaliatory acts just as relations between the two communities are improving.

The region was on high alert on Tuesday with 1 500 soldiers and police deployed on street corners and at traditional markets, mosques, churches and schools.

Captain Idham Mahdi, Poso’s chief detective, said it was too early to say who was behind the killings—though suspicion has fallen on Islamic militants seeking to destabilise the region.

Four dozen detectives and forensic experts were trying to re-enact the events leading up to the crime, he said.

Sniffer dogs led them to the rugged hills overlooking the cocoa plantation where the teenagers were murdered while walking to their Christian high school, just outside of Poso.

“We believe the perpetrators may have been watching the girls from the hill before they attacked them,” said Mahdi, adding that authorities also found a backpack that allegedly belonged to the assailants.
It contained only a key chain.

Though he vowed to hunt down the killers and bring them to justice, authorities in the world’s most populous Muslim nation have long been accused of not taking the conflict in Poso seriously because so many of the victims are Christian. Religious leaders say it should not be hard to prevent communal violence in a town of

just 6 000 inhabitants.

Despite a heavy police presence, there have been numerous bomb attacks and assassinations since a 2002 truce ended a bloody sectarian war that killed around 1 000 people—and almost no arrests.

They included an attack on a market in May that killed 22 people, most of them Christians. A bomb planted on a minibus packed with Christian passengers last week injured one.

“Why can’t they stop the killings?” asked the Reverend Eriyanto Kongkoli, secretary-general of the Central Sulawesi Christian Church.

Noviana Malewa, the 15-year-old girl who survived Saturday’s attack, told police all six assailants were clad in black veils and wielded machetes.

The victims’ bodies were left in the cocoa plantation and their heads were found several kilometres away—two near a police station and another in front of a church.

Beheadings, burning and other atrocities were common during the 2001-2002 sectarian war in Central Sulawesi, which unlike most parts of the country has a roughly equal number of Muslims and Christians.

Hundreds of other people have been decapitated or hacked to death elsewhere in recent years, the bulk of them in central Kalimantan province, also known as Borneo.

Most of Indonesia’s more than 190-million Muslims practice a tolerant version of the faith, but hard-line groups are increasingly making inroads.

In recent months, the country’s highest Islamic body has issued a fatwa condemning liberal Islamic thought and radical groups have stepped up campaigns to prevent the country’s Christian minority from building more churches.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ordered police to bring those responsible for Saturday’s attacks to justice. - Sapa-AP

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