(RNS) - In North Maluku province, some 250 people have been killed in violence that began Sunday (Dec. 26), a military spokesman said. The fighting on the island of Halmahera began when a mob of 400 Christians attacked a Muslim village, according to Lt. Col. Iwa Budiman, a local military spokesman.

In the adjoining province of Maluku, 68 people have died in similar sectarian clashes since Sunday, according to local news reports. Fighting there abated Thursday, although tensions remained high in Ambon, the Maluku provincial capital.

The death toll is the highest in a year of often savage fighting between Christians and Muslims in the two provinces, which were known as the Spice Islands under Dutch colonial rule, the Associated Press reported.

The Spice Islands, located in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago, were once held up as a national model of interfaith relations. However, tensions date back to 1950 when the Christians--many with ties to the Dutch colonial administration--battled Indonesian troops in a bid to secede from the predominantly Muslim nation.

More recently, animosity between the two groups was stoked by an influx of Muslim migrants from other parts of the country, upsetting the numerical balance between the communities. The newcomers have come to dominate retail trading, siphoning off business from Christians.

On Thursday (Dec. 30), Christians in Maluku urged the international community to intervene to prevent a full-scale religious war. "The United Nations must intervene to separate and protect the two communities and ensure peace," said Chris Sahetopy, a Christian member of the provincial assembly.

Some 800 lives had been lost in the Christian-Muslim fighting prior to this week's added toll, the Jakarta government said. Unofficial estimates put the number at 1,500.

Indonesian commanders in the two provinces have urged that martial law be imposed in the region, located 1,500 miles east of Jakarta. But President Abdurrahman Wahid rejected calling a state of emergency.

Wahid, who visited Ambon on Dec. 12, also has ruled out foreign intervention, saying the conflict is an internal affair.

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