Indonesian security forces have been ordered to peacefully persuade a group of armed separatists to leave two villages near a giant U.S.-owned mine in eastern Papua province, but would abandon “a soft approach” if necessary, officials warned Friday.
Tensions escalated on Thursday when two dozen men, including 10 with firearms, occupied the villages of Banti and Kimbeli in Mimika regency, preventing 1,300 people from leaving, police said.
About 300 of the village residents are migrant workers from Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, officials said.
The villages sit near a mine owned by Freeport-McMoRan, where there have been a string of recent shootings, including one in late October that left a policeman dead and wounded at least six.
“We already asked police and the TNI [the military] to take persuasive action to overcome it,” Wiranto, the government’s security minister, told journalists in Jakarta on Friday.
“We will use persuasive ways first, we warn them not to act like that. We will use law enforcement,” Wiranto said, explaining that if the approach to curtail the violence failed, security forces “will take action.” He did not elaborate.
“Our primary priority is to rescue people taken hostage,” Indonesian media outlet Tempo quoted him as saying Thursday. “If the soft approach cannot be carried out, we will take the next step.”
There were conflicting reports on Friday as both sides blamed each other after police claimed initially that the separatists had taken hostages.
The military restricts journalists from entering Papua without a special permit, making it difficult to independently verify reports of shootings and violence in the province.
Last month, a state of emergency was declared and hundreds of soldiers were deployed in the remote region after violence flared, officials said.
Freeport, which has been in Indonesia since the 1960s, operates the Grasberg mine complex in Papua. It is one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines.
In 2014, the company posted earnings of almost U.S. $2 billion in copper sales from its Indonesian operations and U.S. $1.4 billion in sales of gold mined in the country.
Separatist group denies military’s claims
Confusion arose on Friday after military chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo issued a statement saying the villagers had been taken hostage, according to the Associated Press.
But Wiranto, who is also the country’s minister for political and legal affairs, said in his statement Friday that the armed group apparently did not take hostages, but merely “isolated” the area.
The villagers, who mostly pan for gold in Kalu Kabur, a river stream where Freeport‘s mine tailings are dumped, were merely banned from leaving their villages, Wiranto said.
A member of the Papua National Liberation Army, an armed group that goes by the Indonesian acronym TPN, also disputed police claims that it had taken hostages.
“It’s not true, it’s only the provocation of Indonesian military and police with the aim of damaging our image,” Hendrik Wanmang, who described himself as a TPN commander told AP. “People there are safe, both natives and non-natives are free to do activities as usual.”
Villagers can’t go to an area defined by the separatist group as a battlefield because it would be dangerous, but are otherwise allowed to move around as they please, Wanmang said.
In a separate interview with Reuters news service, Wanmang said that none of his group’s more than 2,000 fighters was deployed in the villages near the mine.
“We cannot mingle with the community,” Wanmang said in a phone interview. “That would endanger them.” He denied police allegations that the separatists had raped and tortured civilians.
But he also warned that Freeport employees and security personnel could stay in the area at their own risk.
“We are at war against the National Police, Indonesian military and Freeport,” he said.
A low-level secessionist movement has simmered for decades in Papua and West Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost provinces, which are among its poorest and least developed.
Migrants from other parts of Indonesia now make up about half the population and dominate commercial activity, according to reports.
The region officially became part of Indonesian in 1969 following a U.N. mandated "Act of Free Choice" process that some indigenous Papuans view as flawed.
Economic motive might have led to violence
National police spokesman Setyo Wasisto suggested that an economic motive could be driving a surge of violence in the area because, he said, the armed group aimed to control its source of funds.
“So they want to maintain it. This is from the economic point of view, others we do not know yet,” Wasisto told reporters.
He said the leaders of the armed group had not shown they were willing to open a dialogue with the government.
National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian said members of the armed group made their livelihood by panning for gold at Kali Kabur.
“This group is about 20 or 25 people, carrying five to 10 weapons,” Karnavian said, referring to the separatists, who were armed with guns, as well as bows and arrows.
Inspector-General Boy Rafli Amar, the Papua police chief, said about 200 police officers had been deployed about 2 km (1.2 miles) from the mining complex.
On Oct. 21, TPN released two videos claiming responsibility for the October shootings near Freeport, saying it launched the attacks to protest repression suffered by Papuans and pressure the mining company to leave Indonesia.
TPN also issued a statement vowing that the separatist group would carry out armed assaults in the Freeport area.
In one of the videos seen by BenarNews, Hengky Beanal, who identified himself as a West Papuan TPN member, denied police allegations that the militants were involved in sexual attacks and robberies.
“Media must go to the field before drawing a conclusion,” Beanal said.
Because of the spike in violence, the mining company started using armored cars and helicopters to transport workers, Freeport Indonesia spokesman Riza Pratama acknowledged.
“Sorry, I cannot comment on security. So far (the shooting incident) has no impact on production,” Pratama said.