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Indonesian police fire on Dayak protesters

Madurese mother and children
Thousands of terrified refugees have been forced to flee Dayak attacks  

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Protection assurance

Wahid under pressure

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PALANGKARAYA, Indonesia -- Riot police in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan have fired on a crowd of ethnic Dayaks who had taken to the streets during a visit by President Abdurrahman Wahid.

The violence, in the city of Palangkaraya, capital of Central Kalimantan province, came shortly after Wahid held talks with Dayak leaders in a bid to resolve weeks of ethnic violence that officials say has left nearly 500 dead.

Unconfirmed reports on local television say four people were killed when the police opened fire.

The province has been the scene of weeks of ethnic violence between the indigenous Dayaks and settlers from elsewhere in Indonesia, mainly from the island of Madura.

Officials say nearly 500 Madurese have been killed by gangs of Dayaks armed with spears and machetes who are trying to drive the Madurese from what they say is their land.

Many of the dead, including young children, have been beheaded and mutilated.

Since the violence began about three weeks ago more than 51,000 refugees have been forced to flee their homes to escape the bloody rampage.

Protection assurance

During his visit to the province Wahid tried to reassure the Madurese that they would be protected.

Wahid has returned to Indonesia amid growing calls for his resignation  

"The Madurese should be returned to their homes if possible -- if not, they should be relocated," he said.

Later in talks with Dayak leaders Wahid offered the community more university and school places, increased land rights, and a promise to refurbish community buildings destroyed in the ethnic clash.

But Dayak protesters who had gathered in the streets outside demanded to see the president and wanted a commitment from him that Madurese settlers would not return to the province.

Thousands of Madurese have been relocated to Kalimantan as part of a controversial government program known as "transmigrasi", designed to ease population pressure in more crowded parts of Indonesia.

When asked by if they would accept the settlers back, a group of Dayaks from the town of Sampit, scene of some of the worst violence, replied "no, we will chop off their heads."

The protest began peacefully, but after Wahid left a scuffle at the entrance to the meeting hall and police fired warning shots.

Protesters retaliated by throwing rocks after which police gunmen sprayed gunfire into the air and at the crowd, hitting a number of people.

Wahid under pressure

President Wahid's visit to the province comes shortly after his return from a controversial visit to the Middle East and Africa.

Critics, many of them calling for his resignation, have condemned the president for not returning home earlier when the violence first broke out.

Dayak gang
Dayak gangs say the violence will not stop until all Madurese settlers have fled  

During his visit Wahid called for an investigation into human rights abuses in the province and promised to reconcile the warring ethnic factions.

However, hundreds of defiant Dayaks took to streets vowing to keep Madurese out of the province and saying the violence would not stop until the last settler had left.

Dayak leaders -- who have given the Madurese the ultimatum of quit the province or be killed - say they have so far killed almost 3,000 settlers.

The leader of the provincial Association for Dayak people told that in the current climate it would not be safe for the Madurese to return to Central Kalimantan as it was not possible to guarantee their safety.

He insisted the Dayaks went on a head-hunting rampage in self-defense.

On the island of Madura itself, reports say two Dayak men were killed by Madurese refugees Thursday in what police say was an apparent revenge attack.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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