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Armed Attackers Kill 2 Americans in Papua

Asia: Militant separatists are suspected in the ambush, in which an Indonesian also died.

September 01, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Two Americans and an Indonesian were killed Saturday when an armed group ambushed a convoy of vehicles near a huge American-owned copper and gold mine in the troubled province of Papua, authorities said.

As many as 14 other people were injured in the shooting, including at least six Americans, four of them seriously, officials said. Indonesian officials said some of the victims were teachers at an international school near the Freeport Indonesia mine.

The shooting took place on a road heavily patrolled by the Indonesian military. Soldiers responded quickly and pledged to track down the killers, said a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here.

This morning, troops reported exchanging fire with a group of unidentified men near the site of the attack. Military officials said one member of the group, a Papuan, was killed and one soldier was wounded in the leg.

It was unknown who was behind Saturday's assault, although some officials suspected militant separatists who oppose Indonesia's 40-year rule in the province.

"An armed group, whose identity is unclear, blocked the road and then opened fire," Papua Police Chief Made M. Pastika told the Reuters news service. "Those who died were two Americans and one Indonesian."

Papua, known until recently as Irian Jaya, makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea. It is rich in resources such as gold, timber and oil, but many of its 2.5 million people live in poverty.

Indonesia annexed the province in 1969 after it staged a vote of 1,026 handpicked tribal chiefs. Many were held at gunpoint as they voted unanimously to join Indonesia. An armed group known as the Free Papua Movement has fought the Indonesian army for decades, but it has generally been poorly equipped and ineffective.

Last November, Papua's most prominent opposition leader, Theys Eluay, was abducted and slain. Twelve officers and soldiers from Indonesia's feared special forces branch, Kopassus, have been arrested in that killing.

In January, the government renamed the province Papua and gave it greater autonomy, but those moves have produced little enthusiasm among indigenous Papuans, who make up more than half the population. The government has intensified efforts to crack down on the opposition.

The Freeport mine is the world's largest gold mine and is Indonesia's biggest taxpayer. Owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. of New Orleans, it has become a symbol of Papua's exploitation by outsiders.

Because of its importance to the country's economy, it is guarded by Kopassus soldiers. It was unclear whether soldiers were accompanying the ambushed convoy.

Several of Indonesia's regions, including Aceh, Sulawesi and the Moluccas, have been the sites of continuing armed conflict, but foreigners have rarely been targeted. In the past, Papua separatists kidnapped several Americans but released them.

Two years ago, United Nations aid worker Carlos Caceres of Puerto Rico and two others were hacked to death in West Timor when a mob attacked their offices.

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