London (CNSNews.com) - Facing accusations that its army is colluding with Islamists who are waging a holy war against Christians, Indonesia announced Tuesday it was replacing troops there who may have become "involved emotionally."
British lawmakers meanwhile have been told that Indonesian militants involved in the carnage in the country's remote Maluku Islands aim to turn the world's most populous Muslim country into an extremist Islamic state by 2003.
Around 1,400 soldiers based in the provincial capital, Ambon, will be switched, an army spokesman confirmed to a wire agency.
More than 170 people have died in the past week, the violence reportedly instigated by a self-proclaimed jihad group from elsewhere in Indonesia which has arrived to support the local Muslim community in its dispute with local Christians.
The army has faced repeated accusations of taking sides in the sectarian conflict.
The latest outbreak followed a relative lull in an 18-month cycle of bloodshed, which has cost at least 2,500 lives. In recent days a Christian university and Muslim mosque have been destroyed, along with hundreds of houses, a telecommunications complex and other buildings.
The United States has welcomed steps finally being taken by the government to curb the conflict, including a ban on travel to the area from outside. President Abdurrahman Wahid declared a state of emergency in the islands Monday.
"We are especially troubled by the fact that security forces have proven either unwilling or unable to stop the violence," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told a press briefing in Washington.
"In particular, I want to note that the government should prevent organized groups from initiating attacks and stop extremists from outside areas from inflaming the situation and engaging in violence," he added.
Reports from the region say the latest violence followed the arrival in the Malukus of some 2,000 armed volunteers from a Java-based Islamist paramilitary group called the Lashkar Jihad.
The group has declared an Islamic holy war against the Christians of the Malukus - the one part of predominantly Muslim Indonesia with a sizeable Christian population.
Some reports link the Lashkar Jihad to political elements close to former President Suharto, who resigned in 1998 amid political violence and public anger with corruption and nepotism.
Maluku governor Saleh Latuconsina said he believed the militants were "connected to some political elite" as there appeared to be no restrictions on their movements. He also raised the possibility of ties to Suharto loyalists.
The group's leader, Jaffar Umar Thalib - himself linked to elements from the former Suharto regime - said in April it planned to deploy 10,000 volunteers in the Malukus.
Two leading Christian leaders Monday issued an urgent plea for international intervention.
Monsignor Joseph Tethool and the Rev. Sam Titaley, representing the Catholic and Protestant communities respectively, appealed to the United Nations to "speedily render us international help by placing U.N. special security forces in the Malukus."
Asked whether Washington thought it was time for the U.N. to become militarily involved in the crisis, Reeker did not directly address the question, saying instead: "I think as I indicated, we're urging the government, and we've been doing so for some time, to take immediate measures."
Indonesian Foreign Affairs spokesman Sulaiman Abdulmanan said earlier the problem was an internal one and Jakarta did not want "any foreign countries interfering."
The British-based organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has been monitoring developments in the area, has given some details of events in the past days.
In what was reportedly the worst single incident since the conflict began, a "large jihad force" aided by members of a Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) military unit attacked a village called Duma last Monday, killing an estimated 155 people.
On Friday, the Maluku Christian University was "razed to the ground by jihad warriors and members of the military," CSW said.
"Remains of bullets, hand grenades and ammunition for heavy machine guns was found at the scene," lending credence to the reported involvement of soldiers.
Despite the ban issued Friday on outsiders entering the region, CSW cited unconfirmed reports which said a commercial vessel arrived in the islands on Saturday "carrying a large number of jihad warriors despite the travel ban.
"An attack was reportedly launched from the ship on Christian villages in Gudang Arang and Benteng."
CSW president Baroness Caroline Cox initiated a debate in Britain's upper House of Lords last week on the situation in the Maluku Islands, which CSW visited on a fact-finding mission two months ago.
Cox said many Christians believed the violence was linked to "a longer-term plan to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state by 2003, and then to establish a more extremist Islamic state, which would have far-reaching implications regionally and globally."
"All the evidence suggests that jihad warriors are gaining active support from disaffected elements of the Indonesian armed forces and that many of them are being trained by advisers from other militant Islamic countries."
She urged the British government to encourage Indonesia to "stop the murderous activities of the jihad force and allow international monitors to be attached to the armed forces; to allow an international fact-finding mission to undertake impartial investigation into the conflicts in the Malukus; to take immediate measures to investigate, identify and prosecute those responsible for these conflicts, which have caused such immense suffering ..."