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Dozens injured in Indonesia in rioting over rising prices

Flipping over cars and hurling rocks at police, thousands of rioters furious about price increases rampaged in northern Indonesia on Tuesday in the worst outbreak of violence since the country's economy buckled last year.

Helmeted police officers fired in the air to ward off mobs of looters who set fire to two homes and 14 cars and pelted hundreds of storefronts with stones, residents said.

Witnesses said several dozen people were injured, but there was no official count. At least 94 people were in police custody.

While the government was buoyed by another $7-billion from the International Monetary Fund _ the fruits of its decision to phase out some subsidies _ Tuesday's unrest is a painful reminder that the economic pain is becoming too much for many Indonesians to bear.

Yet, unlike student protesters who fought police on two campuses in Jakarta on Tuesday, the rioters were more focused on economic survival and directed little of their rage at President Suharto, a former army general whose authority remains firm after three decades in power. Most of the students believe Suharto's downfall is the only way to ensure a more open political system.

"Bring down the prices," the rioters shouted, referring to government-ordered increases in the prices of gas and assorted public transport.

Looters pilfered shoes and clothing from shops within a several-block radius, while other rioters indiscriminately stopped cars, forced terrified motorists to get out and then set the vehicles ablaze.

Some of the rioters stormed shops owned by ethnic Chinese shopkeepers; five Chinese families asked for protection at a police station. The ethnic Chinese minority, which dominates commerce in the mostly Muslim nation of 200-million, was targeted during deadly riots sparked by price increases in February.

"People are very terrified the mobs will attack their homes," said police Lt. Col. Amrin Karin.

By nightfall, the city was quiet. Police cordoned off roads around the riot scene. Several armored cars patrolled near a university campus where students have staged sometimes violent demonstrations for democratic reform.

In the capital on Tuesday, police lobbed tear gas canisters and fired rubber bullets at rock-throwing students. At least five officers and 25 students were injured in two clashes, police and witnesses said.

While the public was bracing for a gradual reduction in state subsidies, few were prepared for Monday's announcement of price increases of between 20 percent and 70 percent for fuel and electricity and bus and train tickets, among other items. Opposition politicians cried foul.

"The government has clearly violated the law that mandates Parliament be consulted first before raising any tariff," said Abdul Walid, a legislator of the Islamic-based United Development Party, a minority party sometimes critical of government policy.

But the authoritarian Suharto dominates the political establishment, and Parliament is packed with his supporters.

The price increases are the latest chapter in an off-again, on-again relationship with the IMF, which refused to disperse the remainder of a $43-billion bailout package until Indonesia makes structural changes to its economy. Aside from eliminating the subsidies, the agency is pushing the government to dismantle a system that awards ownership of key businesses to Suharto family and associates.

Indonesia cannot afford to ignore the IMF's requests. Its currency, the rupiah, has lost 70 percent of its value against the dollar since July. Unemployment and inflation have risen steadily, as have the prices of most products.

In chopping down subsidies, the government did make efforts to ease the burden on the poor. The price of kerosene, widely used by low-income families, was increased the least among fuels.

But that was not enough to contain the public ire. Bus drivers in the eastern city of Kupang refused to drive high school and university students to classes, and thousands of students marched in protest to the governor's office.

Students had asked Parliament to call a special assembly to consider ousting Suharto. But on Tuesday, parliamentary leaders ruled out that possibility.