Violence continues for a third day in the Indonesian province of Maluku, where clashes between Christian and Muslim gangs have killed 24 people.

Reports from the capital of Maluku Province, Ambon, say Tuesday's victims of Muslim-Christian violence were mostly police.

But witnesses there say the worst may be over as there were no signs of the roving mobs that burned buildings and attacked people. They say some parts of Ambon were returning to normal - but tension remains high in mixed Christian-Muslim areas of the city.

United Nations officials say most of their staff had temporarily relocated to Jakarta.

The latest flair of violence has inflamed hard-line Islamists in the rest of Indonesia. Four extremist groups say they have thousands of Muslim men ready to go to Ambon to protect the Islamic community there.

Jafar Umar Thalib, the leader of Laskar Jihad, one of the groups, says he is waiting to assess the situation to see how many people he finally sends to Ambon, but, says, he has as many as 10,000 on standby.

The latest violence broke out Sunday when a small, Christian-based separatist movement attempted to raise an independence flag in Ambon.

Maluku was the scene of a bitter three-year conflict between Christians and Muslims, which killed an estimated 9,000 people before the two sides signed a peace deal in 2002.

Groups, like Laskar Jihad, have been blamed for fanning the flames of inter-religious hatred during that conflict, and observers are worried that if they are allowed to return in large numbers, the killing could escalate.