Dozens of workers shot dead in West Papua

Dozens of workers shot dead in West Papua. soldiers prepare coffins for the construction workers in Wamena. Picture: AFP

JAYAPURA, 05 DECEMBER 2018 (AFP/AP) – Indonesia was last night investigating reports that 31 construction workers were shot dead by separatist rebels in West Papua, as the Public Works Minister halted construction in the province.

If the killings are confirmed, they would mark the deadliest bout of violence in years to hit the mineral-rich region, which has long been at the centre of a low-level independence insurgency.

“We’re shocked and saddened to hear the media reports this morning,” Public Works Minister Budi Hadimuljono said in Jakarta.

“All work is going to be suspended given this incident.”

The employees of state-owned contractor Istaka Karya were building bridges along a 278km road project connecting the cities of Wamena and Agats.

The workers are considered outsiders by the separatists in the impoverished province.

West Papua police spokesman Suryadi Diaz said the 24 workers were killed on Sunday when gunmen stormed a bridge site in a remote mountainous village in Nduga district.

Eight other workers fled to the nearby house of a local MP, but an armed group came on Monday and killed seven of them, he said, citing reports from several witnesses. The eighth managed to escape and remains missing.

The shootings were allegedly sparked by separatists angry at workers who were taking pictures of pro-West Papua independence activities. Foreign media need permission to report from West Papua and obtaining reliable information is difficult.

“This is the worst attack launched by the armed criminal group recently amid intensified development by the government,” Officer Diaz said.

He said security forces were trying to recover all 31 bodies but they were scattered and guarded by gunmen in the district, a stronghold of separatists who have battled Indonesian rule for nearly 50 years. Indonesia routinely blames separatists for violence in West Papua.

The alleged killings come as more than 500 activists — including Australian Ronda Amy Harman — were arrested in a nationwide police crackdown that coincided with rallies on Saturday.

December 1 is considered by many West Papuans to be what should have been be the anniversary of their independence from the Dutch. West Papua declared itself an independent nation on that date in 1961, but Indonesia took control of the region by force in 1963. It officially annexed West Papua in 1969 with a UN-backed vote, widely seen as a sham.

Jakarta keeps a tight grip on the region. Indonesia’s government, which for decades had a policy of sending Javanese and other Indonesians to settle in West Papua, is now trying to spur economic development to dampen the separatist movement.

West Papua experienced several outbreaks of violence this year including the killing of three local people, allegedly by rebels. The deaths followed a gunfight in which a small plane carrying 15 police officers — sent to oversee the local elections — was shot at as it landed at Nduga.

Some of the violence has been centred on protests against a huge gold and copper mine operated by US-based firm Freeport McMoRan — a frequent flashpoint in the struggle for independence — and the push for a bigger share of the region’s rich resources.

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