"Thousands have fled," he said Saturday. "What could they do? Their houses have been burned. The police came yesterday, but it was too late." The Jakarta Post newspaper reported that hundreds of homes in settlements around the coastal town of Poso had been destroyed by uniformed members of the Laskar Jihad militia group.
Fighting between Muslim and Christian villagers in Sulawesi, about 1,000 miles northeast of Jakarta, has claimed at least 1,000 lives in the last two years. Dozens have been killed in recent weeks. Laskar Jihad, based on Java island, has been accused of stoking a sectarian conflict in eastern Maluku province that has claimed about 9,000 lives since 1999.
A militia spokesman in Jakarta confirmed the group had been involved in fighting in the region but refused to comment on the latest reports. The group's Web site claimed that attacks on Muslims were being organized by Christian priests.
The Jakarta Post quoted Sulewesi's Roman Catholic bishop, Josef Suwatan, as saying armed militiamen had used bulldozers to destroy homes, churches and schools. The United Nations has warned that increasing tension in the region could trigger a flood of refugees. At least 50,000 people have already been displaced.
Suwatan appealed to the government to restore law and order in the region. The government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been reluctant to rein in Muslim militants. Analysts say Megawati is indebted to conservative Muslim parties that supported her campaign to oust reformist president Abdurrahman Wahid in July. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation. Nearly 85 percent of its 203 million people are Muslim. The rest are Christian, Hindu or Buddhist.