Christians, Muslims Clash in Eastern Indonesia

Mobs set fire to buildings at a Christian-run university on Monday in Indonesia's Maluku islands, where 18 people have died in two days of clashes between Christians and Muslims, police and witnesses said.

Police rushed reinforcements to the provincial capital Ambon to stem the fighting, the bloodiest outbreak of violence in the Malukus (search) since a peace deal in 2002 ended two years of religious violence in which 9,000 people perished.

The unrest in 2002 attracted Muslim militants from all over Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Many of them later joined the Al Qaeda-linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (search), which was blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings.

The new bloodletting in the region — known previously as the Moluccas or Spice Islands — comes as politicians campaign for presidential elections in July.

In Jakarta, national police chief Gen. Dai Bachtiar told reporters that 18 people had been killed and 107 injured in fighting on Sunday and Monday.

On Monday, gangs of Muslims and Christians fought in Ambon's Talake neighborhood, witnesses said. Gunfire and several explosions were heard, and a mob torched buildings on the campus of a Christian-run university in the district.

Rivai Ambon, the director of the city's Al-Fatah hospital, told The Associated Press that 20 people were taken to the hospital Monday as a result of the fighting.

Muslim mobs burned several Christian homes in the city, said C.J. Bohm, a local Christian leader. Most of the homes were empty because their inhabitants had fled late Sunday.

"I think it will get worse," said Bohm, who has advocated peace between the two communities. "They [the Christians] can't defend themselves and the security forces are very weak."

Early Monday, about 200 police reinforcements arrived in the province, said national police spokesman Maj. Gen. Ahmad Basyir Barmawi.

He declined to comment directly on witness accounts that security forces were responsible for at least eight of the people killed in Sunday's unrest, in which an office housing U.N. agencies and a church were torched.

"If you have two groups of people who are fighting, hurling bombs at each other, then the police have to take action," he said.

The unrest occurred after several members of the region's small largely Christian separatist movement rallied in Ambon.

Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, but the Malukus' 2 million people are evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.

Most of the Muslims are settlers who were moved to the Malukus from other islands in the 1970s and 80s under the Suharto dictatorship's migration program in order to dilute the secessionist movement.

The Malukus are 1,600 miles east of Jakarta. Known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial days, the Malukus were once held up as a model of religious harmony.

Soon after it erupted in 1999, the conflict intensified with the arrival of volunteers belonging to Laskar Jihad (search) — or Holy War Troops — a newly created militia from Indonesia's main island of Java.

Analysts and diplomats accused senior army commanders loyal to Suharto of funding and training the militia to create trouble for reformist administrations that followed his ouster in 1998.

Although Laskar Jihad's leaders were close to the military — which on occasion provided the militiamen with fire support — some of the rank and file were radical Muslims who later joined Jemaah Islamiyah.