Security forces kill 2 Papuan rebel leaders in shootout near jointly owned US-Indonesian gold mine

JAYAPURA, Indonesia, 7 Apr (AP) — Two Papuan separatist leaders were killed in a shootout between security forces and their rebel group near one of the world’s largest gold mines in Indonesia’s restive Papua region, police said Sunday.

Clashes Thursday between independence rebels of the Free Papua Movement and a joint police and military force near the mining town of Tembagapura in Central Papua province left two of the group’s regional commanders dead; Abubakar Kogoya, known as Abubakar Tabuni and Damianus Magay, commonly known as Natan Wanimbo.

Both were part of the West Papua Liberation Army, the group’s military wing.

Rebels in Papua have been fighting a low-level insurgency since the early 1960s when Indonesia annexed the region. A U.N.-sponsored ballot, widely seen as a sham, incorporated the former Dutch colony into Indonesia leading to simmering insurgency ever since.

Security forces recognized the two commanders after finding their identity cards on them, said Faizal Ramadani, who headed the joint security force. He also said authorities showed the bodies of both men to other imprisoned members of the liberation army Friday for further confirmation.

Several other rebels were wounded in the shootout but managed to escape into the jungle, according to Ramadani. He said they were armed with military-grade weapons, axes and arrows. Security forces seized a gun in the area.

The group’s spokesperson couldn’t be reached for immediate comment.

The area harbors the Grasberg gold mine, nearly half-owned by U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan and run by PT Freeport Indonesia. Separatists view the mine as a symbol of Indonesian rule and have frequently targeted it.

The shootout ensued after authorities received reports that attackers believed to be members of the liberation army stormed a traditional gold panning facility in Kali Kuluk, causing many, including locals in surrounding villages, to flee.

Kali Kuluk is located in the operational area of PT Freeport Indonesia.

Ramadani described Tabuni as a central figure in the liberation army, adding that police records showed he took part in the March 2020 attack that killed a New Zealander and wounded six others in the same area, a road ambush in Oct. 2017 that left one police officer dead and another November the same year that wounded a company truck driver.

“He played an active role in various security disturbances near Freeport areas,” Ramadani said.

Freeport-McMoRan has been mining the Grasberg’s vast gold and copper reserves for decades. Several environmental groups have accused the company of damaging the surrounding territories primarily via waste dumping.

The mine provides a significant tax income for the Indonesian government, according to local reports.

Indigenous Papuans suffer poverty, sickness and are more likely to die young than people elsewhere in Indonesia, multiple non-governmental organizations say.