Intelligence reports in Indonesia and Australia are signaling that murderous sectarian violence is about to return to the Poso area of central Sulawesi thanks to the activities of fundamentalist organizations like Jemaah Islamiah.

Last week Canberra warned Australian nationals to avoid all travel to Central Sulawesi. Similar warnings are in effect for the US and New Zealand.

However, although local officials have warned of rising tension, the central government in Jakarta appears hamstrung by a weak anti-terror law and is under pressure from Islamic leaders in the capital to tread warily. There is also concern that Indonesia’s security forces are not taking the threat seriously enough.

A crackdown by police last month led to a bloody clash with suspected Muslim militants in which 15 people died, including a policeman. More suspected Islamic militants were arrested but police warned that several more, including JI ringleaders, had probably fled to Java.

The crackdown, although backed by some senior Muslim leaders in Jakarta, sparked controversy, with police coming under fire for alleged human rights abuses. The raids netted five members of a group believed responsible for several attacks, including the bombing of a crowded market in the majority-Christian town of Tentena in May 2005 that killed 20, and the beheadings of three Christian schoolgirls in Poso in October of the same year.

The suspects, currently awaiting trial in a Jakarta court, have told investigators that indoctrination lessons given to them by JI operatives in Poso in 2003 were calling for a a holy war against infidels.

Jakarta denies that Islamic militants are involved in Central Sulawesi, pointing the finger instead at Poso’s criminal underground, claiming religious conflict fits their need to protect networks of crime and corruption by diverting the attention of security forces.

For more Asia Sentinel stories, click here.

Peter Fray

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