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Maluku peace deal signed

Fighting has forced thousands of refugees from both sides to flee the province
Fighting has forced thousands of refugees from both sides to flee the province  

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Warring Christians and Muslims in Indonesia's Maluku province have signed a peace deal aimed at ending the bloodiest conflict in Southeast Asia.

Negotiators from both sides signed an accord on Tuesday in a bid to end three years of violent conflict in the Maluku group of islands.

"Yes, the document has been signed by both sides," a senior official in charge of the talks told Reuters news agency from the hilltown of Malino, South Sulawesi, where the two sides are meeting.

The peace deal came during two days of meetings and follow similar talks in December, which bought an end to religious clashes in the Poso region of the island.

Jakarta has taken an active role in sponsoring the peace talks, which included 80 delegates from both faiths.

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Religious clashes -- triggered by a dispute between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim boy in 1999 -- quickly escalated throughout the island chain, killing at least 5,000 people and wrecking the region's tourism industry and economy.

Residents say religion has so polarized the islands that local authorities have taken sides and people no longer trust the police or army, many of whom have acted as hired guns for whichever side can pay.

Muslim militants

Analysts have said the arrival in mid-2000 of migrant Muslim militant groups exacerbated a rift between the two religions.

Fighting rose when thousands of Muslim militants belonging to the Laskar Jihad militia -- or Holy War Troops -- arrived from Indonesia's main island of Java.

The group has consistently taken a hard-line stance on the conflict saying their aim is to eradicate Christianity in the Malukus, and vowing to wage holy war until their goal is achieved.

Muslims account for about 85 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people, but Muslims and Christians are almost evenly split in the Malukus.

The paramilitaries -- who refused to attend the Malino talks -- said in a statement that the Muslim delegates at the negotiations in Malino did not represent the people of the province.

The terms

Indonesian troops
Jakarta has sent in troops over the years in a bid to quell the clashes  

Despite this drawback, the two faiths on Tuesday called for the establishment of two commissions -- for security and for social affairs -- to monitor the truce in the province known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial rule, The Associated Press reported.

It also provides for the disarming of militias, establishment of joint security patrols, and calls for the return of refugees to their homes and the reconstruction of the province.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes in the three years of combat.

The provincial capital, Ambon, was devastated by fighting and its two communities are now divided by a strip of no man's land.

In Ambon, residents quickly welcomed the pact which was the first truce covering the whole chain of islands.

Past short-lived truces have been limited to individual towns and lacked the auspices of the central government.

Family carrying coffin
Violence has claimed thousands of lives on both sides  

"The Christian congregation here hopes to see the end to problems and the emergence of peace in the Moluccas after (the pact) has been signed," Reverend L. Lohi from the Protestant Church in the Moluccas told Reuters by phone from Ambon.

Indonesia has struggled to control communal violence along its outer reaches since former president Suharto stepped down in 1998, although there have been few major clashes in the Moluccas or Poso since Megawati Sukarnoputri took power last July.

Many analysts blame Suharto's authoritarian rule for keeping a lid on many of the resentments that sparked much of the anger.




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