Christian mobs freed hundreds of prisoners, torched cars and looted Muslim-owned shops across eastern Indonesia after three Roman Catholics were executed early yesterday for a 2000 attack that killed 70 Muslims, witnesses and officials said.
On the island of Flores, where the condemned men were born, machete-wielding youths terrorized residents and police fired warning shots to disperse gangs tearing apart the local parliament building. Elsewhere, protesters blocked roads and set buildings on fire.
Police and media reports said at least five people were hurt in the sectarian clashes, including a prosecutor who was hospitalized with stab wounds.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla appealed for calm, saying the deaths of the three men had nothing to do with religion.
Fabianus Tibo, 60, Marinus Riwu, 48, and Dominggus da Silva, 42, were led before a firing squad just south of Central Sulawesi's capital Palu at 1:45am, said I Wayan Pasek Suartha, a spokesman for the attorney-general.
Their bodies were examined by a team of doctors minutes later, who officially declared them dead.
A panel of three judges found the men guilty of leading a Christian militia that launched a series of attacks in May 2000 -- including a machete and gun assault on an Islamic school where scores of men were seeking shelter.
Human rights workers say the men's trial was a sham, and that while it was possible the trio took part in some of the bloodshed, they almost certainly were not the masterminds.
The case has raised tensions in the world's most populous Muslim nation and sparked debate about the role religion played in punishing those who participated in violence that swept Sulawesi province from 1998 to 2002, killing more than 1,000 people from both faiths.
Only a handful of Muslims were convicted, none for more than 15 years in prison.
The executions took place despite an appeal last month by Pope Benedict XVI to spare the men. A Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, told the Italian news agency ANSA that news of their deaths "was very sad and painful."
Palu was largely calm yesterday, with thousands of police standing on street corners and guarding markets and churches, watching as some 1,000 mourners packed the St Maria's church early yesterday to take part in a requiem.
"My father begged us not to be angry, not to seek revenge," Tibo's son, Robert, told Christian followers after the morning prayers. "He asked us to forgive those who did this to him. God blesses all of us, he said."
But violence flared in the Sulawesi villages of Tentena and Lage, where hundreds of Christians went on a rampage after learning of the deaths, torching cars and police posts.
Thousands also rallied in the eastern province of East Nusatenggara, home to many Roman Catholics, blockading roads and attacking a court, prosecutor's office and other government buildings.
Some 200 inmates escaped after Christian mobs assaulted a jail in the town of Atambua, sending guards fleeing to the nearby jungle.
By midday only 20 had been recaptured, deputy national police chief Lieutenant-General Adang Dorodjatun said, calling on the others to turn themselves in.
Though the government insists the Christian men got a fair trial, with 28 witnesses providing testimony, human rights workers and legal experts note that the judiciary is corrupt and susceptible to outside influence.