Troops on the offensive in Papua after killing of teachers

A day after the two Americans and an Indonesian are shot dead by suspected rebels, troops kill a separatist in a gunbattle.

Troops went on the offensive against rebels in Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua, killing one of them in a firefight yesterday, barely a day after two American schoolteachers and an Indonesian were shot dead by gunmen.

In what is said to be the bloodiest incident involving foreigners in the troubled region in the past 40 years, 12 others – nine Americans and three Indonesians – were wounded after the attackers in military fatigues and wielding automatic weapons sprayed bullets on two buses near Timika.

The buses were transporting teachers from the Tembaga Pura International school that is located within the security perimeter of the heavily guarded US-owned Freeport gold and copper mine – just 2 km away from a military post. No group claimed responsibility for the attack but security officials were quick to pin the blame on the Free Papua
Movement (OPM), which has been conducting a low-level guerilla war, including in the area around the Freeport mine, since the 1960s.

Armed forces chief Endriartono Sutarto said that the fatigues worn by the armed men were those of the rebels. An army general told The Straits Times: ‘This is certainly the work of the OPM. We have no doubt about that. But we want to find out why it was carried out especially with so much force.’

Well-placed sources said that a key suspect was the OPM group revolving around the local self-declared leader in Timika, Kelly Kwalik, who in 1996 masterminded the kidnapping of 23 people, including six foreigners, visiting the province. The reasons behind these incidents run the gamut of decades-old grievances against Jakarta to more mundane and immediate concerns. Last year, for example, rebels near Merauke in Papua kidnapped several Korean logging managers because of an unpaid bar bill.

The incident on Saturday spurred the authorities into action. The province’s military chief Mahidin Simbolon reportedly met the Freeport directors before flying by helicopter to the scene of the killings.

He also deployed two infantry companies of about 250 men to search the jungles and capture the attackers. An ensuing gunbattle between troops and the rebels killed one separatist and seriously injured a soldier.

Analysts said the killing of the two Americans would further taint Indonesia’s image and damage its ability to attract foreign investments.

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