Human Rights Watch today called on Indonesian authorities in the troubled Moluccan island region to take immediate action against troops believed to have taken sides in the communal conflict there. A recent spate of clashes between members of Muslim and Christian communities has left more than 200 people dead since June 21, 2000. According to government sources, nearly 3,000 have been killed since communal violence first flared up in the region in January 1999.

"There's an urgent need for a neutral force to intervene to stop the bloodshed," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Soldiers have broken ranks and joined the fighting as partisans, and, as a result, Indonesian troops right now have virtually no credibility in areas where a neutral force is most desperately needed. Soldiers suspected of breaking ranks should be immediately suspended and removed from the conflict zones."

Human Rights Watch's call came amid increasing reports that military and police units have broken ranks and taken sides in the conflict, and it followed Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid's June 26 declaration of a civil emergency in the region.

Human Rights Watch emphasized that, while there have been many reports that army-issue weapons and ammunition have found their way into the hands of partisans, eyewitnesses have recently reported the direct participation by rogue troops in the fighting, with Christian soldiers supporting Christian groups and Muslim soldiers supporting the Muslim side.

"The declaration of a civil state of emergency will mean nothing if the security forces themselves aren't neutral," Saunders said.

A new Human Rights Watch background briefing on the conflict with detailed recommendations is available here.