JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian officers have detained five people, including a former soldier, over the beheading last month of three teenage Christian girls in the volatile eastern region of Poso, security officials said on Wednesday.
A spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the attacks, as well as a separate incident on Tuesday evening when unidentified gunmen shot and critically wounded two schoolgirls, were an attempt to reignite religious violence in the area.
The grisly beheadings, which occurred a few days before a major Muslim holiday, triggered an outcry across Indonesia as well as in Poso, a regency on Sulawesi island where sectarian fighting raged from 1998 to 2001.
"The role of these five people is still being investigated by police officers," said deputy national police spokesman Soenarko Artanto, adding no suspect has been named in the case.
He refused to clarify whether the army is holding the five. The military have claimed credit for capturing four of them.
"Four people have been captured by members of battalion 714 and they will be handed over to the police. Three of them are civilians while another is a former military policeman," said Major General Kohirin Suganda, the Indonesian military”s chief spokesman, referring to the Poso-based infantry unit.
Suganda said the capture took place a few days ago.
Police have said up to six people dressed in black outfits and masks killed the teenage schoolgirls with machetes near downtown Poso and labeled the perpetrators "terrorists."
The army, playing an increased role in Indonesia”s fight against terrorism, recently created anti-terrorism desks at all levels of its so-called territorial command structure, which reaches down to village level.
The Vatican described the killings as "barbaric."
Most of the previous communal violence in the large but sparsely populated Poso regency, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, happened around the predominantly Muslim seaside town of Poso and the hilltop Christian town of Tentena.
Muslim-Christian clashes in the Poso regency killed more than 2,000 people between 1998 and 2001, when a truce was reached. While the worst violence abated after the peace deal, there have been sporadic outbreaks since, including market bombings last May in Tentena that killed 22 people.
In the latest attack on Tuesday, gunmen on a motorbike shot the two teenage girls — a Muslim and a Christian — as they were sitting together near their homes in downtown Poso.
President Yudhoyono had ordered security forces to find the perpetrators, his spokesman Andi Mallarangeng said.
"From the first case, we have made progress and identified the perpetrators," Mallarangeng told reporters, without elaborating on whether he meant the same four detained.
"(The attacks) did not come from one religion but had people from different religions. It seems the purpose is to provoke religious emotions among Poso residents so that there will be chaos," he said.
About 85 percent of Indonesia”s 220 million people are Muslim. But in some eastern parts, Christian and Muslim populations are about equal.
Most Indonesian Muslims are moderates, but there has been an increasingly active militant minority in recent years.