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Police hold fire on Papua separatists

Jakarta Globe - June 1, 2009

Farouk Arnaz & Christian Motte – Despite having surrounded an airfield in Papua that has been occupied by suspected separatists for weeks, the police are still trying to persuade the group to leave the site voluntarily, officials said on Monday.

"We choose a persuasive approach rather than force," National Police spokesman Insp. Gen. Abubakar Nataprawira told journalists at National Police headquarters in Jakarta. "We don't want bloodshed there because we know that most people there don't know what is happening. The separatists are using local young residents as human shields.

"We will ask local residents associating with suspected separatists to return to their respective homes."

A group of suspected members of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) have occupied an isolated airstrip at Kasepo village in Mambramo Raya district, about 300 kilometers from the provincial capital Jayapura, since mid-May. Police dispatched three units from the Detachment 88 antiterror squad on May 20, but have so far refrained from launching a raid on the group.

Abubakar says only three people in the group are separatists, "but they are able to force local people to occupy the airport."

"The problem now is that the number of local people occupying the airport has gone up to 150 and that is the reason why we are taking persuasive action rather than force," he said without naming the suspects.

The group seized the airstrip on May 18, raising the banned OPM independence flag, which is considered a separatist symbol. Mambramo Raya is a new district, established in March 2007 by the joining of the previously separate districts of Sarmi and Waropen.

Previously, Papua Police Chief Insp. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto had said the Detachment 88 officers were traveling by river, accompanied by local tribal leaders, prominent figures, local administration officers and religious leaders. The area is only accessible by air or by speedboat and the operation had been hampered by geographic obstacles and poor infrastructure. The expedition team is using shortwave radio and communication has been erratic.

Bagus welcomed local tribal leaders being involved in the negotiations, as was suggested by Papua Customary Council member Fadel Al Hamid, who said "the police should not be in a hurry to make any judgment regarding those local peoples."