JAKARTA, Indonesia – Unidentified assailants attacked a group of high school girls on Saturday in Indonesia's tense province of Central Sulawesi, (search) beheading three and seriously wounding a fourth, police said.
The students from a private Christian high school were ambushed while walking through a cocoa plantation in Poso Kota (search) subdistrict on their way to class, police Maj. Riky Naldo said. The rural area is close to the provincial capital of Poso, about 1,000 miles northeast of the Indonesian capital Jakarta.
He said the heads of the three dead girls were found several miles from their bodies.
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation. But Central Sulawesi has a roughly equal number of Muslims and Christians. The province on Sulawesi island was the scene of a bloody sectarian war in 2001-2002 that killed around 1,000 people from both communities.
At the time, beheadings, burnings and other atrocities were common.
A government-mediated truce ended the conflict in early 2002 but since then, there have been a series of bomb attacks and assassinations targeting Christians. A market attack in the predominantly Christian town of Poso killed 22 people in May.
Christian leaders have repeatedly criticized the authorities in Jakarta for allegedly not doing enough to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
The Christian-Muslim conflict in Sulawesi was an extension of a wider sectarian war in nearby Maluku archipelago in which up to 9,000 people died between 1999 and 2002.
Soon after it erupted in 1999, the Maluku conflict intensified with the arrival of volunteers belonging to Laskar Jihad (search), a newly created militia from Indonesia's main island of Java that was supported by hardline elements in the security forces.
Analysts and diplomats accused senior army commanders of funding and training the militia, which was hurriedly disbanded following the terrorist attacks on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 that killed more than 200 people — including 88 foreigners. Some former militiamen are believed to have moved to Poso.