Hundreds of rioters armed with machetes, clubs and petrol bombs have clashed with riot police over a sacred Muslim cleric’s tomb in Indonesia, killing two policemen and leaving at least 145 wounded, some critically.
Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono immediately ordered an investigation into the worst civil unrest for decades in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, which left one police officer with his hand sliced off.
The riots began over an apparent misunderstanding over the fate of the tomb of Habib Hasan bin Muhammed Al Hadad, a revered 18th century Arab cleric known to Indonesians as Mbah Priok.
Shortly after dawn members of the public order branch of the police, known as Satpol, arrived to evict squatters and remove illegal buildings on the land surrounding the tomb. But residents of Tanjung Priok port, where the tomb is located, believed the police and city officials were there to tear it down and attacked them, spurring running battles that lasted for several hours.
Around 2,600 police and security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and batons to beat back the protesters who retaliated with rocks and petrol bombs.
Television footage showed chaotic scenes. Satpol officers armed with shields and batons were filmed repeatedly beating a resident, while other images showed residents kicking and throwing rocks at an injured police officer lying on the ground.
A reporter said he saw several protesters, including teenagers, being beaten by police and dragged away bleeding.
By nightfall the situation was so tense that 500 security forces had to be evacuated to a nearby police station because leaving by road was seen to be too dangerous. Just after midnight, with the rioters’ numbers swollen to 1000, they attacked and set fire to five police cars parked outside a hospital where the injured had been taken, and patrolled the surrounding hills searching for wounded policemen.
“The mass anger was horrible and beyond our expectation for what was a simple case,” said Jakarta city spokesman Cucu Kurnia. He said seven of the 130 wounded were in critical condition, including a security officer who had his stomach slashed open with a machete and another whose hand was cut off.
Mr Kurnia insisted the officials and police were not there to destroy the tomb.”We did not intend to demolish the tomb, but we want to evict the illegal settlers,” he said.
Both sides blamed the other for the violence. Demonstrators claimed that Satpol officers targeted two teenagers who broke from their ranks, while police claimed the protesters attacked first.
But officals joined protesters in accusing Satpol of excessive violence. Last week, a number of organisations had demanded that the controversial force be disbanded, blaming it for repeated human rights violations.
Mr Kurnia told a news conference that Satpol officers could not restrain themselves after they were attacked. Wanda Hamida, a member of the Jakarta Provincial Legislative council, said that Satpol officers were out of control, even attacking city officials. “If a (council) member can get punched by Satpol, how about the people? Satpol was just so brutal,” Ms Hamida told the Jakarta Globe newspaper.
Local resident Amin told the newspaper he and his father and brother were delivering water to friends guarding the tomb site when they were attacked by police officers. He said first his father was punched and when he tried to protect him he too was attacked. “They pulled off my clothes until I was almost naked. Then they tied a rope around my hands so I could not do anything while they kicked and punched me,” he said.
But other rioters, armed with wooden sticks, beat any wounded police officers they could find in the streets while others searched cars in the area for fugitive police, ordering motorists to show their identity cards.
By early this morning, relative calm had settled over the area.
Mr Yudhoyono has ordered Jakarta’s governor to meet all parties involved and put any evictions on hold until a solution can be reached.