Indonesian police kill separatist in Papua

Students from Papua province protesting in front of Merdeka Palace in Jakarta on Aug 22, 2019, to call for a referendum on independence in their homeland. PHOTO: DPA

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesian police shot dead a member of a Papuan separatist group on Friday (Aug 23) during an exchange of fire, a spokesman said, after violent demonstrations this week in other places in the eastern region over perceived ethnic discrimination.

One police officer and a civilian were also injured in the gunfight between police and five members of the group in the town of Wamena, police spokesman Ahmad Kamal said by phone. It was not clear what started the gunfight.

Police have flown in 1,200 officers to quell sometimes violent protests since Monday (Aug 19) in a region that already has a heavy military presence due to decades of separatist conflicts.

Papuan towns such as Manokwari, Sorong and Fakfak had seen protesters setting fire to buildings including a market, a jail and a legislature in the biggest series of demonstrations in years.

There had been no reports of protest in Wamena in the week, but the town shelters thousands of Papuans who have been displaced by fighting between soldiers and separatists.

In Jakarta, rights group and journalists associations urged the communication ministry to end an Internet blackout in Papua that started on Wednesday (Aug 21) night.

The ministry has said the move was intended to stop people from sharing "provocative" messages that could trigger more violence.

Mr Abdul Manan, chairman of Indonesia's Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), said the measure had "obstructed our right to obtain information" and prevented journalists from reporting on events there.

"This is a critical time because security personnel have been deployed in Papua. In many cases, this is followed by human rights abuses where they can intimidate and arbitrarily arrest people," Mr Manan said.

Mr Usman Hamid, Amnesty International Indonesia's executive director, said in a statement the Internet block meant Papuans would be unable to share evidence of abuses by security forces.

President Joko Widodo said in televised remarks on Thursday (Aug 22) the Internet curb was for "our common good".

Over 8,500 people have signed an online petition calling for the government to restore Internet access.

A video obtained by Reuters showed police firing tear gas into crowds of thousands of Papuans rallying at the parliament building in the town of Nabire on Thursday after demonstrators threw rocks at them.

There were no reports of protests in Papua on Friday.

Reporting access for foreign journalists in the restive region has been limited, despite Mr Joko's announcement in 2015 that Papua was open to foreign media.

The latest spate of demonstrations in Papua and across Indonesia was triggered by a racist slur against Papuan students who were hit by tear gas in their dormitory and detained in the city of Surabaya in East Java last week.

The rallies grew in several places into a broader demand for an independence referendum.

Papua and West Papua provinces, the resource-rich western part of the island of New Guinea, were a Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised UN-backed referendum in 1969.

Asked about the demand for an independence vote, Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, a senior minister, said: "There's no such thing."

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