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24 Die In Indonesia Clashes

Tension remained high in the eastern Indonesian city of Ambon on Thursday with clashes between Muslims and Christians pushing the death toll to at least 24, residents and the official media reported.

"Clashes happen everyday. Today, nine Muslims were killed in Ambon and two in nearby villages, including an insane man who happened to be a Muslim," said an official of the Ambon chapter of the Indonesia Council of Ulemas (MUI), an organization of Muslim religious teachers.

Indonesia has been racked by waves of unrest over the past year as ethnic, religious and social tensions boil over, fuelled by spiraling poverty caused by the country's worst economic and political crisis in decades.

The under-staffed and poorly trained armed forces have been unable to stem the growing tide of violence and lawlessness.

Police and soldiers have been ordered to shoot rioters and troublemakers on sight and a rapid response force is being formed to deal with outbreaks of unrest.

Many expect the situation to get worse in the countdown to the June 7 election.

The official Antara news agency reported at least 24 people had been killed during renewed clashes that started on Wednesday in Ambon, some 1,440 miles east of Jakarta.

Residents said the main roads in Ambon city were deserted with troops blocking the city center and many residents staying at home. Ambon is the epicenter of savage sectarian violence that has claimed more than 160 lives this year.

Ambon city was turned into a battle zone Wednesday as troops fired on angry Christians and Muslims fighting each other with firebombs, machetes and arrows. Fourteen people were reported to have died there Wednesday alone.

Local workers for Christian and Muslim support groups said frightened residents were still flocking to churches and mosques seeking refuge. Some were fleeing for their safety, while others had lost their houses in arson attacks.

The violence has also triggered an exodus of migrants with thousands of people flocking to the main port since early this week to leave for safer places.

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