Clashes erupt at Indonesia demos against fuel hike

Masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails clashed with police firing water cannons and tear gas in the Indonesian capital Monday, as thousands demonstrated nationwide against a plan to hike fuel prices.

Clashes erupted outside the gates of the national parliament in Jakarta as lawmakers inside debated passing a revised budget that would pave the way for a 33 percent average increase in the fuel price, the first hike since 2008.

Fuel prices have long been a flashpoint issue in Indonesia, with economists arguing that government subsidies which gobble up a huge chunk of the budget are damaging Southeast Asia's top economy.

However, millions are opposed to lowering the payouts, which keep down the cost of living, and huge protests have in the past forced the government to abandon attempts to raise the fuel price.

About 3,000 protesters earlier gathered outside the gates of parliament in Jakarta, and as night fell some began hurling Molotov cocktails, fireworks, rocks and bottles at security forces around the legislature.

Police fired back numerous volleys of tear gas at the protesters, many of whom had their faces covered and were waving banners reading "Reject the fuel price rise" and "Hang SBY" (President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono).

Two heavily armoured police vehicles rolled out of the grounds of the parliament and fired water cannon in a bid to disperse the demonstrators.

Earlier, demonstrators set tyres alight outside the parliament, sending a pall of black smoke into the air.

"All Indonesians must take to the streets so that the government won't hike the fuel price," one of the protesters, 24-year-old Slamet Riyadi, told AFP.

"The life of poor people will be much more difficult if there is an increase."

About 19,000 police and military personnel were deployed across Jakarta, police said.

Protests also flared in other parts of the country. In the city of Ternate, in the eastern Maluku islands, five protesters, a journalist and seven policemen were injured at a demonstration, police said.

A 2,000-strong crowd hurled sticks and rocks at police, who responded by firing rubber bullets at the demonstrators, said a national police spokesman.

In Jambi, a city on Sumatra island, hundreds of protesters tried to push through the gate in front of the local legislature but police dispersed them by firing tear gas, police said.

While only a small percentage of Indonesians are private car owners, the plan to increase the price of fuel is expected to push up the cost of everyday goods as they will be more expensive to transport.

Late Monday, lawmakers were still debating amendments to the state budget in the lower house many hours after the parliamentary session began.

The amendments will provide financial assistance to poor households likely to be hardest hit by a fuel hike, and Yudhoyono has said that they must be approved before he hikes the price of petrol.

At 4,500 rupiah ($0.46) a litre, Indonesia has one of Asia's cheapest fuel prices.

Some opposition parties oppose the amendments but the ruling coalition has a majority of seats in parliament and the revised budget is expected to be approved.