Indonesian separatists brace for ‘swift and deadly’ retribution after up to 31 people were killed in remote West Papua district
- On Thursday, the military said it had retrieved 16 bodies from Nduga, but the total death toll has still not been confirmed
- An exiled independence leader, now based in the UK, has called for calm in the wake of the killings at the weekend
The exiled leader of the West Papuan independence movement has called for calm after independence fighters attacked and killed up to 31 people in a remote West Papuan district on Sunday.
On Thursday the Indonesian military said it had located the bodies of 16 people in the district of Nduga. Nine have been retrieved and transported to the main town of Timika. None were identified. Gunfire was hampering efforts to recover the rest, the military said.
Benny Wenda, the UK-based chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), said it was hard to know exactly what happened at Nduga, amid conflicting reports on the long-running tensions, and without free access for media or human rights groups.
Indonesian authorities said it was civilian construction workers that were killed by separatist militants. Another 15 people – including seven employees of the state-owned contractor that was building infrastructure in the region and a 4-year-old boy – have been evacuated.
Independence movement the Papuan liberation army, TPNPB, under commander Egianus Kogeya, claimed responsibility but said those killed were all members of the Indonesian military (TNI).
Wenda said he could not stop the liberation army, but wanted them to know that the ULMWP was eager to solve the issue “diplomatically”. “We don’t want any bloodshed, we want Indonesia to come to the international table to discuss and we can agree to a referendum. That’s what our campaign is about,” he said.
“In order for us to fix what is going wrong we have to know the truth, but we cannot trust the Indonesian government’s account about Nduga, or any incidents in regard to West Papua, and this is a problem.”
If the dead were not military the incident would mark the first time West Papuan fighters have fatally attacked civilians, and an extraordinary escalation in the more than 50-year-old conflict.
Wenda said Indonesia had a history of “creating violence” and using it to justify an increased military presence, and that this incident occurred just days after Indonesia arrested more than 500 people at West Papuan independence rallies.
“Indonesia has seen that ordinary Indonesian people have come out in support of our rights, and it sent a strong signal,” said Wenda. “Then, just after that, this incident happened. That’s a little bit of concern to me.”
On Wednesday, the military supplied an account from one survivor identified by his initials “JA” who claimed about 50 rebels entered the workers’ camp on Saturday and led them away with their hands tied behind their backs.
The following day, the rebels shot dead a group of workers, while some tried to escape, the account said. The attackers recaptured six workers and slit their throats, according to the uninjured witness, who said at least 19 employees had been killed in all.
Police and military teams sent to the area have come under rebel gunfire with one soldier killed and two wounded since Monday, according to authorities.
Translations of TPNPB social media posts, accounts from members of the independence movement and local media reports suggest 24 men were killed in the initial attack while five of seven escapees were then tracked down and killed.
Two are believed to be still missing, according to Victor Yiemo, international spokesman for campaign group the West Papua national committee.
Neither Yiemo or Wenda have been able to contact members of the TPNPB, who are believed to have retreated into the jungle, but Yiemo said villagers nearby told him there was continued shooting between the two sides.
He accused Indonesia of dominating media with propaganda calling TPNPB “terrorists”.
“[TPNPB] are our military and are fighting for our freedom and we support them,” Yiemo said.
Jason Mcleod, a lecturer in peace and conflict studies at the University of Sydney, said
retaliation by Indonesian forces would likely be “swift and deadly”, with widespread civilian casualties. Indonesian media reported conflict had already begun.
Additional reporting by Associated Press