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Suharto orders action against looters

May 15, 1998
Web posted at: 1:26 a.m. EDT (0526 GMT)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Indonesian President Suharto, who returned home Friday to find his capital city in chaos, ordered his ministers to take action against rioters and looters who have devastated Jakarta, Information Minister Muhammad Alwi Dahlan said.

Witnesses and officials said on Friday that at least 110 people, most believed to be looters, were killed in a Jakarta shopping mall fire set by other rioters.

Rioting and looting began Tuesday has left plumes of thick smoke billowing across the Jakarta skyline, and there were unconfirmed reports that as many as 24 people, including four soldiers, had died in Thursday's violence.

Overnight, many people in the capital spent a nervous night guarding their homes.

"I think everybody is awake in this neighborhood. Men stay outside the houses to guard. Women are busy making coffee and noodles for them," said Evelyn Siburian, who lives in a west Jakarta district.

Suharto returns to unrest. CNN's Mike Chinoy reports.
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There were also reports of violent protests in other major Indonesian cities.

The violence prompted the United States to decide to evacuate its nonessential embassy staff from Indonesia and to postpone a visit by a top military team. Also, the U.S. State Department on Friday advised U.S. citizens to leave Jakarta.

In addition, U.S. companies such as Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Co., Virginia-based Mobil and Conoco, a subsidiary of Delaware-based Dupont Co., announced plans to evacuate employees and their families as soon as possible.

Suharto returns from Egypt

Amidst the unrest, Suharto, Asia's longest-serving leader, cut short a state visit to Egypt and returned home. He was greeted at the airport by Vice President Jusuf Habibie; Gen. Wiranto, the armed forces chief; and other Cabinet members.

Suharto did not speak to reporters and, guarded by troops and military vehicles, was driven straight to his residence in central Jakarta.

On Thursday, the character of the protest movement shifted. What started with student protests turned into a revolt of the urban poor -- those worst hit by Indonesia's economic crisis --who ransacked and looted shops and stores, destroying what they couldn't carry away.

Questions arise over Suharto's military support

With the death toll rising, the armed forces -- the pillar of Suharto's power -- deployed armored vehicles and thousands of troops in a bid to restore order. But it remained far from certain whether the show of force would work, either to quell the unrest or blunt the challenge to Suharto's 32 years of authoritarian rule.

Soldiers exchange greetings and "high fives" with the crowd  

Fueling speculation that Suharto's military support might be eroding, soldiers and demonstrators mingled together in some instances, chatting and laughing together. And Wiranto himself made conciliatory comments, saying that "everything the armed forces does is concerned with how we and others can hold a dialogue for the sake of reform."

However, sending a different signal, Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsudin, Jakarta's military commander, issued a stern warning in a speech to his troops that was broadcast on local television.

"We must face rioters and looters firmly. We are soldiers who will support the nation, and we will never surrender," Syamsudin said.

Ethnic Chinese a major target

Frightened residents complained that the military failed to stop mobs rampaging through many parts of the city. In some places, the crowds cheered the troops and clambered aboard their vehicles as soldiers stood by.

A man marks his shop as being owned by a native Indonesian -- in an effort to keep it from being burned or looted  

A particular target was the ethnic Chinese community, which makes up only about 5 percent of the Indonesian population but is economically prosperous and has become a scapegoat during the economic unrest.

"Jakarta is on fire. We'll go anywhere," said Saiumei Wen, a 27-year-old ethnic Chinese woman trying to by plane tickets for her family.

The house of Indonesia's richest man, Liem Soei Liong, an ethnic Chinese billionaire with close links to Suharto, was trashed and burned.

The official Antara news agency said police had arrested at least 500 looters during the riots.

Correspondent Mike Chinoy and Reuters contributed to this report.


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