Jakarta: Six supporters of Indonesian Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab were killed in a shootout on Monday, police said, raising worries the clash could reignite tensions between authorities and Islamist groups in the world's biggest Muslim majority country.
Jakarta police chief Fadil Imran said the incident occurred just after midnight on a highway when the cleric's supporters attacked a police vehicle with firearms, sickles and a samurai sword. Police displayed the weapons during the news conference.
Police have been investigating the controversial and politically influential cleric for violating coronavirus protocols after several mass gatherings to celebrate his return from self exile in Saudi Arabia last month.
Rizieq was scheduled to appear for police questioning on Monday, after failing to appear last week.
Munarman, a spokesman for the Islamic Defender's Front (FPI), the hardline group led by Rizieq, denied their entourage was armed, saying the cleric and his family had been travelling to a dawn prayer event when they were attacked by 'unknown thugs'.
He said six of Rizieq's bodyguards were victims of 'extrajudicial killing'.
Indonesia Police Watch said in a statement that given the conflicting accounts the incident should be investigated by an independent fact-finding team.
The 55-year-old firebrand cleric left Indonesia in 2017 after facing charges of pornography and insulting state ideology, assuming self-exile in Saudi Arabia for three years.
When he landed in Jakarta, tens of thousands flocked to the airport in white Islamic garb, ignoring health protocols as they clamoured to kiss the cleric's hand.
Before leaving Indonesia, Rizieq was the figurehead of the hardline '212 movement that opposed Jakartas former Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as 'Ahok', who was accused and ultimately jailed for insulting Islam.
In the weeks since his return, Rizieq has declared plans to embark on a "moral crusade" and met some government and opposition figures, causing unease in the administration of President Joko Widodo, amid fears anti-government sentiment could be mobilised by conservative groups as Indonesia battles the pandemic and an economic recession.
The FPI has been angered by police attempts to summon the cleric, with analysts saying the clash risked heightening tensions further.
"The latest clash will feed into their narrative that the government is a tyrannical anti-Islam regime," said, Quinton Temby, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, adding the FPI has effectively used 'martyr' propaganda posters in past clashes with authorities.