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Christian refugees starving in Indonesia

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Forced to flee their homes by rampaging Muslim militants, hundreds of Christian refugees sheltering in remote mountains in the Maluku islands are facing starvation, international aid workers said Saturday.

With no food or medicine and a lack of water, about 1,500 refugees are trying to survive in jungle-covered mountains on the island of Ambon, said Maria Teresa Vilhena of the emergency relief agency, Doctors Without Borders.

"We have a high emergency situation here," said Vilhena, from Switzerland. "Some people are already dying in the jungle."

She said many of the refugees are too afraid to leave their jungle hide-outs and seek help from international aid workers for fear of being attacked again.

Most of the refugees come from Waai village, 1,600 miles northeast of Jakarta, which has been the target of several raids by Muslim militants recently. At least 38 people were killed in and around the village this past week.

Vilhena said that in the past two days about 4,000 people, many barefoot, bearing open wounds and in shock, have found their way down from the mountains.

Many are now seeking shelter in a church. The others have been transported to a warehouse in Passo village, in another corner of Ambon island, where they are receiving food, water and medical care, she said.

On Friday, three people, including a baby and a 6-year-old boy, died from various diseases after trekking out of the mountains and making it to relative safety, she said.

Maluku and nearby North Maluku provinces have been plagued by Muslim-Christian violence, which has claimed nearly 4,000 lives since January 1999.

Animosity has been stoked by an influx of Muslim migrants from other parts of the country.

The migrants have upset the numerical balance between the two communities and have come to dominate retail trading — siphoning off business from the Christians.

Indonesia's government imposed a state of civil emergency across the region in June, but fighting has escalated in recent weeks. Much of it has been blamed on the arrival of thousands of members of an Islamic vigilante group, the Laskar Jihad or Holy War Force.

On Friday, Indonesia's state-appointed National Commission for Human Rights called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to help end the war.

The commission's secretary general, Asmara Nababan, said many Indonesian soldiers and police officers were taking sides in the conflict and without international assistance the fighting would continue.

On Saturday, Indonesia's military said it had destroyed thousands of guns and other weapons it had confiscated from Christian and Muslim fighters recently, the official Antara news agency reported.