Indonesian security forces on high alert

Hundreds of security forces patrolled a tense Indonesian province Monday to prevent revenge attacks after assailants wearing black veils beheaded three Christian schoolgirls and seriously wounded a fourth.

Police refused to speculate on who was behind Saturday's grisly murders in Central Sulawesi, an area that has a long history of violence between Muslims and Christians, saying the probe was continuing.

Investigators were questioning at least three witnesses, including the wounded girl, said provincial police chief Col. Oegroseno. Fearing more violence, 700 troops patrolled the town of Poso with automatic rifles on Monday, with hundreds more expected to arrive in coming days.

Religious leaders condemned the killings, which occurred just as relations between the Muslim and Christian communities appeared to be on the mend, urging both sides to remain calm.

"Whoever carried out this barbaric act wanted to provoke people and create instability in the region," said Syafi'i Ma'arif, leader of Indonesia's second largest nonpolitical Muslim group Muhammadiyah. Though President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered police to track down the killers, Christian residents said Monday they were afraid to leave their homes.

"We are really scared," said Noldi, who goes by only one name and lives in the same village as the three slain high school girls. "For the time being we're spending all day and night inside."

The injured girl, who was in stable condition at a police hospital Monday, said six assailants wearing black veils carried out the attack as the students walked through a cocoa plantation on their way to school just outside of Poso, Oegroseno said.

The heads of three victims were found several kilometers (miles) from their bodies. Two were left near a police station and another in front of a newly built Christian church.

The Vatican on Sunday called the beheadings a "barbaric" attack and said Pope Benedict XVI was praying for renewed peace between the region's people.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Islamic nation. Most of the country's more than 190 million Muslims practice a tolerant version of the faith, but hardline groups are increasingly making inroads.

In recent months, the country's highest Islamic body has issued a fatwa condemning liberal Islamic thought and radical groups have stepped up campaigns to prevent the country's Christian minority building more churches, reports the AP. Photo: AP I.L.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team