JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian soldiers in tanks took control of downtown Jakarta without a fight Friday, but the capital remained tense as riotous mobs terrorized Chinese merchants for a fourth day and the United States began evacuating its citizens.
President Suharto, 76, cut short a trip to Egypt and returned to Jakarta before dawn in an attempt to salvage his political legitimacy. Under heavy military escort, he drove through darkened streets littered with burned-out cars and lined by fire-gutted buildings and within hours had summoned his top military and civilian advisors.
His first moves were to order his commanders to stop the rioting immediately and his Cabinet to lower the price of fuel and electricity. Price hikes imposed last week at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund had ignited the riots--which claimed at least 160 lives--pushing Jakarta to the brink of chaos and sparking an evacuation of many foreign residents.
But events were moving fast. Students began demonstrating in February demanding dialogue with the government. By the time Suharto agreed to discuss dialogue, they had upped the ante to calls for reform. And now reform is yesterday's news; everyone is talking about transition--the end of a 32-year presidency marked by national achievements; nepotism and corruption; and, finally, economic collapse and disgrace.
Suharto was scheduled to meet early today with a delegation of university students, Associated Press reported. The meeting is a major concession and appears to be an attempt by Suharto to assuage some of his most vocal critics.
"I am convinced the old man is finished," a Western political analyst said. "It may take weeks or months, but after he's made concessions to the students to try and calm things down, I don't see what choice he has but to negotiate with the military for a way to step aside."
With flags flying at half-staff and the Muslim call to Friday prayer rolling across the shuttered capital, opposition groups, including a faction of Suharto's own Golkar party, stepped up their demands for the resignation of the president and said a transition to new leadership is inevitable.
"This regime is facing its end, its death; there is no way to postpone it," opposition leader Amien Rais, 54, told a gathering at a mosque as armored personnel carriers and soldiers in full battle gear patrolled the streets outside.
The crisis has brought this stunned city of 10 million residents to a standstill. Stores and offices were closed for a second day. Streets were mostly deserted except for tanks stationed at key intersections. Downtown hotels were packed with residents who did not dare go home. The central bank did not open, and trading of the rupiah, the local currency, was suspended.
For the time being, at least, the violence gripping the capital has made irrelevant plans to revive the crippled Indonesian economy, as well as the IMF's $43-billion bailout. The IMF staff flew out of Jakarta on Friday to the safety of Singapore on a chartered jet, news agencies said.
The U.S. Embassy urged Americans in Jakarta to leave as soon as possible and scheduled an evacuation for early today on chartered flights to Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand. Scores started gathering Friday night at three staging areas, including the residence of Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy.
A number of U.S. firms announced plans to evacuate many of their employees independently. France, Japan, Australia and Canada have also issued travel advisories. All commercial flights to every destination from Jakarta were sold out through the weekend.
"Yes, I'm nervous and I'm scared," said Liliana, 34, an ethnic Chinese who was among thousands of prospective passengers to descend on the capital's airport. "I'll wait it out in Singapore to see what happens. When Jakarta is safe again, I'll return."
The Chinese--who represent 4% of Indonesia's 200 million people but control 70% of its private wealth--have been the rioters' most common target, with hundreds of their shops and businesses being looted and burned. They are resented because they have benefited from Suharto's rule and the poor have not.
In both ethnic Chinese and native Indonesian districts, citizen patrols were on guard to protect homes from the roaming mobs. Watchmen banged on pans to awaken their neighborhoods when gangs approached, bringing residents armed with iron bars, saws and clubs onto the street to face down the young, unemployed would-be attackers. Usually the mobs moved on.
Late Friday, Red Cross volunteers were still counting the toll from a blaze at the four-story Yogya Department Store in east Jakarta. Mobs had broken into the store, setting fires, smashing glass counters and looting their way up, floor by floor. By the time they got to the top floor, the fire was out of control and the looters were trapped, though no fire engines or military forces showed up to fight the blaze.