PALU, Indonesia -- Three Christian militants were executed by firing squad early today for leading attacks on Muslims six years ago that left 70 people dead, a police official and local media said.
The men were taken before the firing squad at 12:15 a.m., said a senior police officer who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. Metro TV and SCTV had similar reports, but did not identify their sources.
In carrying out the death sentence, Indonesia ignored an appeal last month by Pope Benedict XVI to spare the men.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told the Italian news agency ANSA that news of the execution ``was very sad and painful."
Fabianus Tibo, 60, Marinus Riwu, 48, and Dominggus da Silva, 42, were found guilty of leading a Christian militia that launched a series of attacks in May 2000 -- including a machete and gun assault on an Islamic school where dozens of men were seeking shelter.
Security forces braced for sectarian violence, with thousands of police blocking roads leading to the prison where the inmates are being held, standing on street corners and guarding nearby churches.
``I understand they have been killed," said Roy Rening, their attorney, adding that he was still awaiting confirmation from the prosecutor's office.
The case against them has heightened tensions in the world's most populous Muslim nation and raised questions about the role religion played in punishing those allegedly behind the violence that swept Sulawesi province from 1998 to 2002, killing more than 1,000 people of both religions.
Only a handful of Muslims were convicted in the violence, all for 15 years in prison or less.
The men told relatives and a priest during final prayers at their jail yesterday that they were innocent but ready to die.