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Papuan rebels kill 7 gold miners

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roops retrieve the body of a victim shot by armed rebels in Seradala, a district in the Yahukimo regency of Indonesia’s Papua region, Oct. 16, 2023.

Separatist rebels killed seven traditional gold miners in a remote district of Indonesia’s Papua region, police said Tuesday about the deadliest attack on civilians there in more than a year.

A spokesman for the separatist West Papua National Liberation Army confirmed that its fighters killed the miners on Monday but said they were working as informants for the Indonesian security forces – an allegation often made by the rebels in the killings of civilians.

Meanwhile, members of a military-police task force came under fire as they retrieved the victims’ bodies and rescued 11 survivors from the scene of the killings in Seradala, a district of Yahukimo, a regency in Papua Highlands province, an official said on Tuesday.

“They fired shots at our team. There was a firefight for an hour and a half,” Commissioner Faizal Ramadhani, chief of operations for the Cartenz Peace task force, said in a written statement sent to BenarNews.

The victims came from other parts of Indonesia – six from South Sulawesi and one from North Sumatra, Faizal said.

They were attacked by rebels belonging to a faction led by Egianus Kogoya that has been holding a New Zealand pilot hostage since February in Papua’s Nduga regency, Faizal said.

Bayu Suseno, a spokesman for the task force, said many non-Papuan civilians lived in Seradala.

Tensions have arisen over the years in Papua, a mountainous and underdeveloped region at the far eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, because of the settlement of large numbers of people from other regions of Indonesia as part of a government transmigration program.

“They were attacked while they were in a river, looking for gold,” Bayu told BenarNews.

Bayu said Kogoya’s group had been active in several areas in the Papuan highlands, such as Nduga, Yahukimo and Kenyam, and had launched attacks that disrupted security.

“We from the Cartenz Peace task force will continue to enforce the law and pursue them until we catch them and hold them accountable,” he said.

Papua, a former Dutch colony that makes up the western half of New Guinea island, is home to a decades-long insurgency against Indonesian rule. The rebels demand independence for the ethnically Melanesian region, which is rich in natural resources but deeply impoverished.

Indonesia took over Papua in 1963 from the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority.

A U.N.-supervised referendum in 1969, which was criticized as flawed, confirmed Papua’s integration into Indonesia.

Human rights groups have accused Indonesian security forces of abuses against Papuans, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests. The government restricts access

to Papua for foreign journalists and researchers, making it difficult to verify the claims.

‘Military intelligence officers’ 

Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of the separatist movement, said his group was responsible for Monday’s attack.

“TPNPB claims responsibility for the killings of seven Indonesian military intelligence officers who worked as illegal gold miners,” Sambom told BenarNews.

He said civilians who worked as laborers, project workers and miners had been warned to leave the areas of armed conflict.

“To non-Papuan civilians, do not listen to the military and police who employ you. They cannot replace your lives,” he said.

The rebels in the past have also been accused of killing civilians, especially those who are not native to Papua. In July 2022, 11 civilians were killed in an attack by separatists in Nduga regency.

Violence in Papua has surged in recent years after rebels killed at least 19 road workers in 2018.

Adriana Elisabeth, a Papua researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency in Jakarta, said if the separatists targeted non-Papuans, it meant this was part of an anti-immigrant campaign.

But “if they are indigenous Papuans, maybe there are issues of customary land rights that are still disputed,” she told BenarNews.

Gabriel Lele, a Papua researcher at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, said anyone suspected of being close to the security forces, including indigenous Papuans, would be targeted by the separatist movement.

He said this had been happening for a long time as part of the rebels’ efforts to spread fear and maintain territorial control.

“The problem is, sometimes the security forces also think the same way, so the people are really trapped,” he told BenarNews.

Nazarudin Latif contributed to this report from Jakarta.

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