Death toll at 3 in ambushes near mine in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A policeman’s body was found at the bottom of a ravine near the Indonesian operations of U.S. mining conglomerate Freeport today, raising the death toll from a series of weekend ambushes in restive Papua province to three.

A 29-year-old Australian mining expert and a security guard also were killed and seven others wounded in three weekend shootings within a 2-mile radius near the Grasberg mining complex, police said.

It was the worst violence in the militarized zone since two American schoolteachers and an Indonesian colleague were murdered in 2002.

A police patrol came under heavy fire Saturday on an island just off Papua’s northern coast hours after suspected separatists were detained, said local police spokesman Nurhabri, who uses a single name.

Indonesian authorities have blamed the Free Papua Movement for the latest attacks, but police say they recovered bullet casings of standard military and police grade from the scene, casting doubt on that claim.

The policeman was reported missing Sunday after a gunfight broke out with assailants in hills surrounding the Grasberg mining complex and may have fallen to his death while seeking cover, Papua police chief Bagus Ekodanto said.

About 120 police reinforcements were called in from the capital, Jakarta, to help hunt for the attackers in the dense jungle, he said. Additional forces also were deployed around Freeport’s sprawling facility in the Papuan highlands, and employees were warned to be alert.

The escalation of tension in Papua, a resource-rich but impoverished region on the western half of New Guinea island, is an unwelcome development for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was re-elected just last week to a second five-year-term. It also raised questions about the military capabilities of Papua’s secessionist movement, which until recent months had shown few signs of life.

The Grasberg mine is one of the world’s largest single producers of both copper and gold. The rebels see PT Freeport as a symbol of Jakarta’s rule and a reminder that foreign investment in the area has failed to lift their standard of living.

The Australian mining expert was shot and killed on Saturday while traveling in a vehicle in the same area where the three schoolteachers were killed in an ambush in 2002.

Yorris Raweyai, a Papuan lawmaker in the national parliament, dismissed claims that the separatist movement, known by its Indonesian acronym OPM, was responsible for the deaths.

“We know the OPM has been labeled as a troublemaker in Papua for four decades,” he said. “But we also know that they have no guns and fight for their struggle peacefully.”

No arrests have been made in connection with the ambushes despite a massive security operation, police said.

Indonesia’s House Speaker Agung Laksono called for a comprehensive probe into the attacks to determine the motive and put the perpetrators on trial.

The mine, which employs roughly 20,000 mostly local workers and is one of Indonesia’s largest taxpayers, is majority owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper &Gold Inc. of Phoenix, Arizona, which posted revenue of nearly $18 billion in 2008. The Indonesian government holds a minority stake in the Grasberg mine.

The low-level insurgency for an independent Papua has been a source of clashes with government troops since the region was transferred from Dutch to Indonesian rule in the 1960s. West Papua was taken over through a stage-managed vote by community leaders called the “Act of Free Choice,” which has been widely dismissed by international scholars as a sham.

Since then, about 100,000 Papuans — the equivalent of a sixth of the current population — have died in military operations in the resource-rich mountain area.

The Indonesian government does not allow foreign media to freely report in Papua, where it has tens of thousands of troops. The site of Saturday’s shooting was inaccessible to local reporters.

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