JAKARTA, Indonesia - Indonesia's president formally declared a civil state of emergency in the eastern Maluku islands Monday, saying fierce street fighting between Muslims and Christians had spiraled out of control.
President Abdurrahman Wahid said he had assumed ultimate control for security in Maluku where scores have been killed in the past week.
``The situation is out of control,'' he told reporters after a special meeting of key members of his Cabinet. He said the state of emergency would remain in place until peace was restored.
In the latest clashes in the battle-scarred main city of Ambon, seven people were killed, and a mosque and dozens of houses were burned Monday, witnesses said. Bombs and gunfire echoed across neighborhoods.
Church leaders and protesters have demanded the United Nations intervene to stop the carnage.
At least 60 people have been killed in the last six days in Ambon. More than 100 died in a Muslim attack on a Christian village in the north of the island group eight days ago.
More than 2,500 people of both faiths have been killed since sectarian violence started 18 months ago across the Malukus, a remote archipelago known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial times.
The state of emergency allows the military to impose curfews, set up blockades and detain suspects indefinitely.
Officials said the declaration is the first in a three-step alert system that leads to martial law. However, analysts said the measure was largely symbolic and more dramatic action was needed.
``We need a special military taskforce to take full control for at least three months,'' said Salim Said, a military analyst in Jakarta.
Citing the rising death toll, Ambon's Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Tethool said Indonesia's military was incapable of enforcing peace. He accused many soldiers of incompetence and bias.
Tethool said he and senior Protestant preachers had written to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan calling on the world body to stop the fighting.
About 50 protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Jakarta, demanded Washington take action. Squads of police were on hand but the protest remained peaceful.
The protesters climbed the embassy's fence and hung banners that read: ``If the United States can save Kosovo, why do you let fighting in Maluku continue?''
Human rights activists in Jakarta also said foreign intervention might be the best way to end the cycle of violence.
``We asked the United Nations to intervene because that is the only way to bring peace to this region,'' Tethool said in a telephone interview. ``The military is no longer capable of stopping the conflict. Many soldiers have taken sides.''
Tethool said most Christians have fled the region after Muslims attacked them using high-powered rifles and other weapons.
Indonesian Foreign Affairs spokesman Sulaiman Abdulmanan said Jakarta would not agree to U.N. political or military intervention, but would accept humanitarian assistance for Maluku, 1,600 miles northeast of Jakarta.
``It's an internal problem. We don't want to see any foreign countries interfering,'' he said.
Last year, international peacekeepers took control of East Timor after its people voted for independence from Indonesia and triggered a bloody backlash by pro-Jakarta militias.
Wahid, a Muslim scholar who has long preached religious tolerance, has accused outsiders of whipping up sectarian hatred.
He has banned travel by outsiders to the region following reports that thousands of Islamic vigilantes from elsewhere in Indonesia have taken part in the fighting.
Critics doubt Indonesia's poorly equipped and trained military can enforce the travel ban.
The Indonesian navy impounded 10 ships carrying machine guns, knives and poison arrows bound for the strife-torn region in the past few days, The Indonesian Observer newspaper reported Monday.
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