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Indonesia Expels Militant Islamic Group - 2002-05-11

Indonesia has ordered the militant Islamic group Laskar Jihad expelled from the strife-torn Maluku islands. But police said the group's leader, who was arrested last week, may be released soon.

Indonesia's Chief Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said expelling Laskar Jihad and radical Christians would help end religious conflict in the Maluku islands. The violence has claimed thousands of lives during the past three-years and created more than 1.5 million refugees. The minister did not give a timetable for the expulsions, but said soldiers from the army's elite Strategic Reserve Command would be sent to the Malukus to help maintain security. Renewed fighting in the Malukus earlier this month claimed at least 12 lives. A February peace agreement called for the expulsion of all paramilitary groups, including the Laskar Jihad.

Officials in Jakarta and the Maluku capital of Ambon continue to blame each other for failure to bring the group under control.

Sectarian strife in the Malukus, about 23,000 kilometers east of Jakarta, had all but ceased until the Laksar Jihad sent more than 3,000 paramilitaries to the province two-years ago to drive out Christians. Observers generally agree the Islamic group has been used to foment unrest in the country. A February report from the International Crisis Group research organization said the Laskar Jihad was trained and armed by rogue elements in the military seeking to destabilize the country's remote regions. In a significant step last week, authorities arrested Laskar Jihad leader Jafar Umar Thalib for inciting violence in the Malukus.

But national police confirmed to VOA that Mr. Jafar may be released next week to attend a local religious convention. Police said charges could be filed against the militant leader at a later date. About 90 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people are Muslim, but in the Malukus, Christians make up about half the population.