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130 looters die in fire during Indonesian riot

May 25, 1997
Web posted at: 11:57 a.m. EDT (1557 GMT)

In this story:

BANJARMASIN, Indonesia (CNN) -- The bodies of 130 people have been pulled from the ruins of a fashionable mall set ablaze during a pre-election riot on the island of Borneo, and officials said they expected to find more when the search resumed Monday.

Officials said the bodies were those of looters trapped in the building during a final spasm of wild rioting Friday in Banjarmasin's commercial district as fierce politicking degenerated into looting and random violence.


More than 100 people were injured and nearly 200 people were arrested, most of them for looting, officials said.

At least four others died in rioting elsewhere in the city.

Officials also said that seven churches, eight shopping centers, 130 houses, 21 cars, 60 motorcycles, four government buildings and three hotels were damaged or destroyed in the violence that culminated with the fire at the four-story Mitra Plaza mall.

Officials said some of the dead were still clutching stolen merchandise, and the charred body of one man wore three pairs of pants.

"Some were clutching stolen things like watches, belts and bags," said a witness.

'Violence was extraordinary'

"The violence was extraordinary," said a priest whose church was destroyed.


Witnesses said the violence began Friday morning, the last day of campaigning before the May 29 elections, when supporters for the ruling Golkar party paraded through the city attacking people who refused to show the two-fingered, V-for-Victory party sign.

Those who gave the one-fingered sign of the Muslim-oriented United Development Party (PPP) were special targets. But after Islamic prayers that afternoon, thousands of people poured out of the town's mosques and battled with those heading to a Golkar rally.

The Golkar provincial headquarters was set afire along with a Protestant church, which in turn ignited a crowded neighborhood of wooden houses.

When police failed to step in, the violence escalated to full-scale looting and burning. A mall under the four-star Hotel Kalimantan was set afire, and at the height of the rioting the mob broke into the Mitra Plaza, which had been closed as a precaution.

Most residents stayed inside

When hundreds of police and troops finally surrounded the building, witnesses said, many looters stayed inside rather than risk arrest. They were trapped there and perished in a fire that began on the ground floor after a bank was ransacked and burned.

"All of them were criminals," a rescue official said. "They were taking advantage of the riots. There were no employees among them."

Police said most of the 181 people arrested were looters.

Banjarmasin, a riverside city of 400,000 known as the Venice of Indonesia for its river canals and floating markets, is about 560 miles (900 km) northeast of Jakarta.

Most residents stayed inside on Friday night, as did ambulance drivers and firemen who refused to brave the anarchic conditions in the streets. Even the police and locally based troops waited until reinforcements could be flown in from other provinces and the main island of Java, a 90-minute flight away.

Curfew imposed as troops patrol streets

The situation Sunday was calm as more than 1,000 troops and police patrolled the streets amid speculation of possible retaliation by anti-government protesters. A nighttime curfew has been imposed.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged in the rioting, and some still smoldered 48 hours after the rioting had ended.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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