Police guard a Shiite boy as he is escorted to safety after the attacks in Sampang
A mob attack on Shiites in Indonesia saw two men killed with sickles and dozens of homes torched, police and a human rights group said Monday, in the latest sign of rising intolerance in the world's largest Muslim country.
Around 500 villagers, mostly Sunnis and many armed with machetes, attacked a group of Shiite students in the town of Sampang in East Java province Sunday, Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace researcher Ismail Hasani told AFP.
"Our sources on the ground said it was an attack by Sunnis on Shiites. There were similar incidents before," he said.
"There is rising religious intolerance as there was never a strong law enforcement in handling violence, which encouraged militancy among the ordinary citizens," he added.
East Java provincial police spokesman Hilman Thayib said two men were killed and six were injured, while 39 homes were set alight during the clash. He said nearly 2,000 police and security forces had been deployed to guard the area.
"The men died from being attacked with sickles. One died on the spot yesterday and another this morning," he said.
"We also arrested eight people over the incident," he told AFP, but refused to say whether it was a clash between Sunnis and Shiites, apparently due to the sensitivity of the issue in the Sunni-majority nation of 240 million people.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday ordered law enforcers and ministers to take firm action against the perpetrators to prevent further violence, but also made no mention of Shiites or Sunnis.
"It's a complex issue, on the one hand it has to do with faith and on the other on an internal family conflict... which resulted in this regrettable violence," he told a press conference.
Indonesia's constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion. But rights groups have said Indonesia has become less tolerant over the past decade and the government is turning a blind eye to the problem.
This is not the first incident of violence in the area, according to Human Rights Watch.
In late December, Shiites in Nangkernang were attacked by Sunni extremists who set fire to hundreds of homes and a Shiite Islamic school, forcing 500 Shiites to flee their village, the international watchdog said.