Crack Police Deployed to Retake Papua Airfield

JAYAPURA ~ The authorities sent crack paramilitary police on Wednesday to retake a remote jungle airstrip seized by armed separatists in eastern Papua province, an official said.

A 40-member police contingent has been sent to end the occupation of the airstrip by around 150 villagers, who are armed with automatic weapons and bows and arrows, Papua police spokesman Nurhabri said.

But it could take days before the police reach the runway in Kasepo village, some 300 kilometres from the provincial capital of Jayapura.

“They have been in control of the Kasepo village airstrip since May 13 and have also raised the Morning Star flag,” Nurhabri said, referring to the banned standard of Papua’s independence movement.

Thick jungle and a lack of roads meant the heavily armed police from the elite Mobile Brigade and Special Detachment 88 anti-terror squad would not reach the village until Friday, he said.

Police are giving those occupying the airport until Saturday to resolve the standoff with local community leaders, Nurhabri said.

“If there’s no change by Saturday they will carry out their police duties,” he said.

Nurhabri said police did not know yet if the occupation was the work of Free Papua Movement (OPM) rebels fighting for independence from Jakarta. He said at least three men had “forced” villagers into occupying the airport.

But Terianus Yeram, who describes himself as the local OPM commander in the district surrounding Kasepo, said his group was behind the airstrip takeover.

“The action in Kasepo village is our responsibility,” he said by telephone.

Papua, which sits on the western end of New Guinea island, has been the site of a low-level insurgency by guerrillas since its incorporation into Indonesia in a 1969 UN-backed vote of select tribal elders widely dismissed as a sham.

Separatist sentiment runs high among Papua’s ethnic Melanesian majority, who complain of abuses at the hands of police and soldiers and that they see little of the region’s vast mineral wealth.

Raising separatist symbols like the Morning Star flag is punishable by life in prison in Indonesia.

Foreign journalists are barred from entering Papua without government permission.

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