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Details Emerge in Papua Attack, but Not Suspects

September 03, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Two Toyota Land Cruisers carrying American teachers and their families slowly wound their way up the steep mountain road Saturday toward the giant Freeport mine in Indonesia's Papua province. Behind them were three trucks driven by local employees of the U.S.-owned mine, the richest gold and copper mine in the world.

As the vehicles approached mile 63 of the winding road 8,200 feet above sea level, a dozen gunmen emerged from the trees and opened fire, some with M-16 automatic rifles. Three teachers were shot dead, two Americans and an Indonesian. Another 11 people were wounded, including seven Americans, mine company officials said. One of the injured was a 6-year-old girl.

It was the bloodiest assault on U.S. citizens in Indonesia since the country gained independence 53 years ago, historians here said. But on Monday, as Indonesian officials offered further details of the attack, who was responsible remained a mystery.

Indonesian authorities blamed the ambush on the Free Papua Movement, a group of poorly armed Papuan separatists who have waged a low-level campaign for independence for the last four decades. The rebel organization denied responsibility.

Rights activists and independence leaders in Papua, on the western half of the island of New Guinea, insisted Monday that it was unlikely the guerrilla group staged the attack and questioned whether the military itself shot the travelers to justify a crackdown on indigenous Papuans.

"It is becoming more and more evident that the Indonesian security forces are involved in creating provocations and instigating violence," the pro-independence Papua Presidium Council said in a statement. "The killing of foreign nationals has never been the policy of Papuans promoting their political aspirations."

Details of the attack still remained sketchy. Most of the wounded, who were flown to Australia for medical care, were kept from reporters. Mine company officials said the survivors never saw their attackers.

Police and soldiers were pursuing the gunmen Monday after exchanging fire with them the day before, killing one, authorities said. Papua Police Chief Made M. Pastika said the dead man dressed and looked like a rebel fighter, with a beard and long curly hair.

"He is from the separatist movement," Pastika said. "They call themselves the liberation army of the Free Papua Movement. But we don't know his name yet, because we could not find any identification."

Pastika acknowledged that it would have been "very difficult" for rebels to evade security in the area and reach the road where the ambush occurred, just four miles from the town of Tembagapura, which is home to many mine employees. Thick fog may have helped conceal the assailants' movements, he said.

The gunmen appeared to have chosen their victims at random, the police chief said.

"They are just ordinary people, so this was not a specific target," he said. "It seems that they just wanted to attack anyone and create the impression that it is not a safe place."

The two 8-seat Land Cruisers, which carried all the Americans and at least one Indonesian, were hit first by the gunshots at about 12:40 p.m., he said.

When the truck drivers reached the same spot minutes later, they saw that something was wrong with the two vehicles. They approached thinking that there had been an accident, and the gunmen opened fire on them. Authorities say 10 to 15 men took part in the attack.

All three of those killed were traveling in the Toyotas. Indonesian officials identified the two dead American teachers as Ted Burgon and Rickey Spear, although the spelling of their names could not be confirmed and their hometowns were not made public. The slain Indonesian teacher was identified as Bambang Riswanto.

The three taught at an international school for the children of employees of the Freeport mine, which is owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. of New Orleans.

Many Papuans see the mine as a symbol of how foreigners collude with the Indonesian government and exploit the province's wealth, leaving little for the native people.

In the five decades since Indonesia became a nation, Saturday's ambush was the most violent attack on Americans, said Ikrar Nusa Bakti, head of the Center for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta, the capital. Political leaders have sometimes espoused anti-American views, but U.S. citizens have not been targeted for killing.

The idea that soldiers could pose as rebels and attack civilians might seem implausible in other countries, but the Indonesian army's track record prompted immediate speculation that it was responsible.

In 1999, the military organized militia gangs in East Timor, then an Indonesian province, to intimidate supporters of independence. When the East Timorese voted in a referendum to break away, the militias slaughtered 1,000 people and razed much of the province.

Last November, Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay, the chairman of the Papua Presidium Council, was abducted and slain. Twelve members of the army's elite special forces branch, Kopassus, have been accused of killing him and may soon face trial.

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