(New York) -- The violence plaguing Central Sulawesi today is a direct result of the Indonesian government's failure to punish the perpetrators of major attacks and protect communities in the province since 1998, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

An estimated 1,000 people have died and more than 100,000 have been displaced since violence between Christians and Muslims broke out in the Poso region of Central Sulawesi in December 1998.

The 48-page report, Breakdown: Four Years of Communal Violence in Central Sulawesi, says security forces have turned a blind eye to violence committed by both sides, including attacks by the Laskar Jihad militia. Human Rights Watch warned that shootings, bombings and attacks continue with impunity, putting at risk a peace declaration signed a year ago.

"Some western governments want to strengthen ties with the Indonesian military in the fight against terrorism, but the army cannot even control conflict in many parts of the country," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "This problem cannot be fixed by more weapons and training. The focus should be on reform."

Following a fight between youths four years ago, Muslim and Christian groups mounted attacks on each other's neighborhoods and villages in repeated cycles of violence. Security forces failed to stop the attacks, and when they did act, they sometimes worsened conditions by firing into crowds and committing human rights violations.

Many of the worst crimes went unpunished, and several subsequent outbreaks were tied to the lack of arrests for prior violence. The few trials that did take place produced inconsistent sentences and took place in a circus-like atmosphere that inflamed tensions further, Human Rights Watch said.

An effective and unbiased deployment of police or military, with a justice system that could hold perpetrators accountable, could have ended the problem when it began in 1998, Human Rights Watch said.

International attention has focused on Indonesia's cooperation in the fight against terrorism, particularly since the bombing in Bali on October 12 of this year. "Terrorist networks in Indonesia indeed require urgent attention by authorities," said Adams. "But Indonesia's regional conflicts pose a more direct threat to democratization and peace. And local conflicts create the chaos and radicalization that terrorist networks seek out."

An al-Qaeda training camp was allegedly set up in the Poso area.

The Human Rights Watch report describes how the radical Muslim organization Laskar Jihad, which had formed to join a similar conflict in Maluku to the east, arrived in Poso in July 2001. They met with local officials and were welcomed by Muslims who felt police and army units had failed to protect them. The arrival of a well-armed, experienced fighting force was followed by the destruction of Christian villages in late 2001. Although the scale of violence fell after the signing of the Malino Declaration in December 2001, the militia's decision to remain in Poso became a sticking point in the peace process.

As pressure on Muslim radicals grew in the days following the explosion on Bali, Laskar Jihad announced that it was disbanding. They asserted the decision had been made for internal reasons days before the attack, which has not been linked to the group. Soon after, another group called the Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) made a similar announcement in Jakarta. Leaders of both groups had already been charged with crimes, and observers said widely-alleged support from elements in the army was fading.

"The announcement by the radical Muslim militia Laskar Jihad that it is disbanding makes this a critical time for peace in Poso and throughout Indonesia," said Adams. "The government must demonstrate through credible investigations and prosecutions that violence by militias or their former members is unacceptable."

Observers worry that former militia members will not simply return to their home villages. Many have been become radicalized, experienced fighters during years of conflict. There are also other militias throughout the country that have not disbanded, some of them tied to political parties. If the government acts now to hold perpetrators of organized violence accountable, while clarifying the legal basis for banning paramilitary groups, widespread violence may be reduced during the next election cycle in 2004.

Human Rights Watch called for an investigation by Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission into the failure to contain the violence in Poso, and urged that internationally-supported training programs build the capacity of police in the province, including measures to increase accountability for human rights violations.