Victor Mambor, Jayapura, Indonesia – Activists say authorities should investigate who dropped mortar shells from the sky on eight villages in Indonesia's rebellious Papua region during counter-insurgency operations last year, and whether the ammunition belonged to the national spy agency.
The call for a probe came after the Reuters news agency reported last week that the shells bought for the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) were converted to be air-dropped and used in attacks on the Papuan villages in October 2021, an assault the military denied.
BIN, a civilian agency under the direct authority of the president, is barred from functioning as an armed force and can only procure weapons to arm its personnel. A separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in the far-eastern Papua region, but activists have also accused government forces of human rights abuses against residents.
Emanuel Gobay, director of the Legal Aid Institute in Papua, urged President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to order an audit of BIN. "BIN has no power to buy firearms or ammunition of any kind," Gobay said.
Gobay also called on the president to order the national police to investigate the alleged shelling of villages by security forces.
October's counter-insurgency operations were precipitated by events of a month earlier, when suspected rebels set fire to public buildings, including a health clinic and an elementary school, in Kiwirok district, after government forces killed an insurgent during a gunfight.
According to Reuters, which cited a report by Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a London-based group, some of the almost 2,500 Serbia-made 81 mm mortar shells bought for BIN last year were used in the October security operation in the eight Papuan villages.
The alleged purchase was not disclosed to the parliamentary committee that approves its budget, Reuters reported, citing three unnamed lawmakers.
However, the military commander in Papua, Maj. Gen. Ignatius Yogo Triyono, denied using mortar rounds on villages.
He told the news magazine Tempo in November that while his troops did fire mortar rounds, it was on a rebels' jungle hideout in Kiwirok for "a shock effect," and not on villages.
But residents in Kiwirok, in Pegunungan Bintang regency, showed journalists photos of what appeared to be 81 mm mortars that failed to explode during a helicopter raid by security forces in October.
Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the separatist Free Papua Movement, claimed his group had evidence that mortar shells were used by government forces.
Sebby also said some of the rounds burned houses and farms belonging to residents.
"At that time Kiwirok was bombarded with mortar shells almost every day – from Oct. 10 to Oct. 13," he told BenarNews. "Mortar shells that didn't explode were collected by residents as evidence," he added.
A Kiwirok resident told BenarNews that they saw a helicopter flying over their village on Oct. 11 and then heard loud explosions.
The helicopter was used by a joint team of soldiers and police to hunt down separatist rebels whom they accused of attacking health workers and setting fire to government buildings there, said the resident, who declined to be identified for security reasons.
Rise in tensions
A member of the Papua legislative council, Laurens Kadepa, said councillors were concerned about the report.
"This report on the use of mortar-type weapons has attracted the attention of the international community and has become our concern," Kadepa said.
Violence and tensions in the Papua region – made up of the provinces of Papua and West Papua – have intensified in recent years.
Last year, the government designated separatist rebels as terrorists after insurgents ambushed and killed an army general who headed the regional branch of BIN. The killing prompted President Widodo to order a crackdown.
The Free Papua Movement has fought for independence for the mainly Christian region since the 1960s.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region that makes up the western half of New Guinea island.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-sponsored vote, which locals and activists said was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the U.N. accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Jakarta's rule