Hundreds of Indonesian troops are due to be deployed to protect workers on the trans-Papua highway after civilian employees fled the project with as many as 15 people killed in a firefight between Indonesian soldiers and Papuan independence militants.
Military spokesman Muhummad Aidi said construction through the mountainous Papuan jungle from Wamena to Merauke would continue despite the series of attacks. He said around 600 soldiers were due to be deployed.
A squad of 25 soldiers was ambushed by up to 70 “armed criminals” using military-standard and traditional weapons, the army said.
“The team fought back until they were able to drive the armed criminal group back into the forest. Three soldiers died in the attack,” the armed forces said. Up to 10 rebels were killed, according to the military, but only one of their bodies was recovered.
Two military helicopters dispatched to evacuate the soldiers came under fire, it said.
Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, said five soldiers were killed but did not mention any Papuan deaths. Both sides claimed to have seized weapons.
There has been no independent confirmation of the death toll as media and NGO access to the troubled region is heavily restricted.
Around 19 people, including a soldier, died in a December 2 attack, and three soldiers, who were providing security for military engineers, were killed on Thursday.
“On December 2, we all know that there was a heinous massacre,” Aidi told the media. “No more workers dare to work there.”
Since November, at least 31 people have died in separatist violence in addition to unconfirmed civilian deaths that Papuan activists blame on Indonesian operations.
Discrimination against the ethnically distinct Papuans, who are largely impoverished, by Indonesia’s police and military have drawn renewed attention as Indonesia campaigns for membership of the UN’s human rights watchdog.
A self-exiled leader of the Papuan independence movement, Benny Wenda, who lives in Oxford, in January presented a 1.8-million signature petition calling for self-determination to the UN human rights body in Geneva.
Indonesia said the trans-Papua highway would bring development to the volatile region but independence activists, who want a referendum on independence, see the road as a way for Indonesia to bolster its grip on resource-rich Papua.
Papua’s Grasberg mine (pictured) is the largest gold mine and the second largest copper mine in the world.
Aidi said 21 of the 32 bridges needed for the highway still needed to be built and military engineers would be responsible for their completion.
“The government wants to open what is in isolation so that the social security program can touch the people there and then build more schools and health facilities and turn the wheel of the economy,” the spokesman said.
Grasberg. Indonesia is keen to protect its Papuan assets. Picture credit: YouTube