Villagers flee with Papua rebels after Indonesia attack

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A commander of rebels in Indonesia's easternmost Papua region said Tuesday that as many as 100 villagers have taken shelter with them in a mountainous jungle following an Indonesian military attack.

The military and Papuan independence fighters have given starkly different accounts of the clashes that began Sunday near the U.S.-owned Grasberg copper and gold mine in the remote region. The number of combatants killed is at least two based on each side's statements.

A National Liberation Army of West Papua commander, Hendrik Wanmang, said indigenous Papuan villagers, mostly women and children, fled into the jungle after Indonesian soldiers set fire to their homes.

"Their condition is now safe in the jungle with us although they only eat whatever they find in the forest," he said.

The Indonesian military spokesman for the Papua region, Col. Muhammad Aidi, said a joint force of soldiers and police has freed six villages in the mountainous Tembagapura area from separatist control and accused the rebels of burning homes.

An insurgency has simmered in Papua since the early 1960s when Indonesia annexed the region that had remained under Dutch control following Indonesian independence nearly two decades earlier.

The giant gold and copper mine, owned by Freeport-McMoran Inc., is a lightning rod for Papuan grievances. Its rich mineral reserves have been shipped abroad for decades by the U.S. company and provided significant tax income for the Indonesian government. But indigenous Papuans have benefited little and are poorer, sicker and more likely to die young than people elsewhere in Indonesia.

Tembagapura, a district near the mine, was the scene of a standoff between the military and rebels in November when the military said rebels, which it refers to as an armed separatist criminal group, were holding hundreds of villagers hostage. That claim was denied by the liberation army. Villagers who were migrants from other parts of Indonesia left, but indigenous Papuans remained in the villages.

Aidi said drone observations showed the Indonesian force of 50 had killed two rebel fighters and injured dozens in the "shootout" Sunday.

The rebels "burned some houses before they fled," he said.

Wanmang said 28 soldiers and two of their local guides were killed in the fighting and a 10-year-old boy burned to death after his village was shelled by the military. Both sides deny most of the other's claims.

Wanmang admitted that rebels had earlier burned down a hospital and a school in the area. He said the hospital was owned by Freeport but did not help Papuans while the school was used by Indonesia to indoctrinate young Papuans.

"We have never and will not burn villagers' houses," he said. "We also strongly deny the TNI (Indonesian military) statement saying that they have managed to free the villages previously held hostage by us. It is not true, since those villages were our villages, our own homeland."

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