An Islamic militant group that has slaughtered thousands of Christians in Indonesia continues to operate despite formally announcing it had disbanded.

Laskar Jihad, which wants to make Indonesia an Islamic state, has established at least 12 military training camps with more than 2,000 fighters in the eastern province of Papua, the former Irian Jaya, according to recent reports from human rights groups, the Assist News Service said.

Laskar Jihad warriors

The militant group waged a violent campaign against Christians in Indonesia’s Maluku province, where at least 10,000 people were killed, and in Sulawesi. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, with more than 180 million.

The Indonesia military is helping arm and fund Laskar Jihad, which began to arrive in Papua two years ago, according to a report by the Barnabas Fund, a British charity that serves persecuted Christians.

The Barnabas Fund says the group began forming links with local authorities, police and army units, and with the pro-Jakarta militia Satgas Merah Putih, which opposes Papuan calls for independence from Indonesia.

Pakistani and Afghan mujahideen, or holy war fighters, have been sighted on the island, according to reports by local Christians, who say they discovered stockpiles of weapons.

The radical Islamic group’s magazine, which contains virulent attacks on Christians, Jews and the U.S., is sold openly in markets in Papua, the report said.

T-shirts, DVDs and books on Osama bin Laden also are on sale.

A leading Papuan human rights campaigner confirmed that Laskar Jihad is operating in the province, according to Radio Australia News. John Rumbiak, of the non-governmental group Elsham, says the Indonesian military is collaborating closely with the holy warriors, especially along the border with Papua New Guinea.

“Military personnel … are involved in training them,” he said, “They have placed them in several districts in Papua, like the transmigration sites where the majority of the Muslims are.”

Laskar Jihad apparently is trying to seek favor with the local Muslim population, although the majority rejects the group’s presence as a dangerous destabilizing factor in an already extremely tense region, Barnabas Fund said.

Local Christians believe the failure of police and army units to stop Laskar Jihad from expanding its military campaign into Papua confirms the complicity of authorities. Last summer, four Laskar Jihad members carrying homemade guns were seized by Christians and handed over to police, but no action was taken.

Others who have reported Laskar Jihad activities to officials say that they have been harassed and threatened with arrest themselves, the Barnabas Fund reported. Some say they have received intimidating phone calls late at night.

Laskar chief Jafar Umar Thalib

In January, the group’s leader, Jafar Umar Thalib, was declared innocent of inciting hatred and religious violence by an East Jakarta court, a decision condemned by human rights groups.

After his arrest last May, Thalib was visited by Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Has and soon was released on bail. A trial was scheduled for August but was postponed when the judge stated: “I see that you’re pale. We don’t want to examine someone who is unhealthy. … I hope you can get well soon.”

Senior officials in the police, military and government appear to be supporting Laskar Jihad and protecting it from prosecution despite overwhelming evidence of the organization’s involvement in mass murder and human rights abuses, according to Barnabas.

Holy war

Laskar Jihad’s attack on Christians in Maluku province formally ended with a peace agreement in February 2002. A pact to end the 20-month insurgency in Sulawesi was made in December 2001.

Barnabas said, however, that Laskar Jihad never complied with the agreements and continued attacking Christian villages, homes and churches, killing at least 10,000 – possibly as many as 30,000, according to some estimates – and displacing half-a-million people. Many Christians were murdered, tortured, forcibly converted to Islam, forcibly circumcised and virtually enslaved.

The majority-Christian Papuans have sought independence since they were annexed by Indonesia in 1963. Laskar Jihad’s arrival, in apparent cooperation with the military, is reminiscent to many of Indonesia’s use of militia to brutally repress East Timor’s struggle for independence. Papua Christians fear the militants will be given a free hand to wage another bloody campaign, this time in their homeland.

Meanwhile, another separatist-minded Indonesian province, Aceh, has announced the opening of its first Islamic law court. In January 2002, a special autonomy agreement made the province the only part of the country in which Islamic law, or shariah, is enforced.

Aceh Governor Abdullah Puteh has assured non-Muslims that shariah will not diminish their rights, but Christians there note that similar promises have been broken in other places in the world where it has been introduced, such as Nigeria.

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