Hundreds of students have fled fighting in Indonesia’s Papua Province, a local non-governmental organization said, amid unconfirmed reports of violent military reprisals after a massacre of civilian workers by separatist rebels.
The death of 16 government-linked employees at a remote jungle work camp in early December last year marked a dramatic escalation from decades of mostly sporadic skirmishes between poorly armed and disorganized guerrillas, and a powerful Indonesian military.
Subsequent clashes prompted the Nduga District government to evacuate more than 400 students to Wamena, the capital of neighboring Jayawijaya District, according to Humanitarian Volunteers for Nduga and a local education agency official.
“Some of the students are suffering from trauma,” said Ence Geong, a coordinator at the organization.
Scores of other residents are believed to have fled to neighboring districts or into the jungle amid allegations that soldiers carried out arson, harassment and killing of livestock and civilians, residents and activists said.
Resident Sripona Nirigi said that her elderly father, Gemin — a priest — was shot dead in December last year during a sweep of the area by the military.
His burned corpse was found by one of her siblings about two weeks later, she added.
Her account could not be independently verified.
Papua military spokesman Colonel Muhammad Aidi rejected allegations that the military had fired on civilians, calling it a “hoax.”
“If there are claims of civilian victims, they’re definitely not ordinary civilians,” Aidi said. “They are part of the [separatists] that are attacking the military.”
Aidi said that the army has investigated the alleged killing of the priest and denied he was shot by soldiers, saying it was still unclear whether he was alive or dead.
He added that two soldiers have been killed and several more were injured in clashes with rebels since the December massacre of workers who were building bridges and roads.
The rebels said they were legitimate military targets.
Local commander Binsar Sianipar confirmed that the students had been evacuated, but said it was due to a teacher shortage in the area, not the military presence.
Classes are being held in tents and the children are staying in overcrowded conditions at relatives’ houses, Geong said. About 80 teachers have joined them.
Military operations in Nduga have displaced at least 1,000 people, lawyer and activist Veronica Koman said.
“Jakarta ordered the military operation, but has been doing nothing to assist ... civilians [who are] now internally displaced persons,” said Koman, who is in contact with church leaders and activists in Papua. “I’ve seen credible photos and videos of burnt livestock and houses, including a sick old man burnt inside a house.”
Indonesian security forces have long been accused of rights abuses against Papua’s ethnic Melanesian population, including extrajudicial killings of activists and arrests of peaceful protestors.
Papua, which shares a border with Papua New Guinea, has been the site of low-level insurgency since the 1960s.
The former Dutch colony declared itself independent in 1961, but Indonesia took control of Papua two years later on the condition that it hold an independence referendum.
Jakarta annexed the mineral-rich region in 1969 with a UN-backed vote that is widely seen as a sham.
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