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Indonesia, Gunmen Exchange Fire

September 1, 2002

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TIMIKA, Indonesia (AP) _ Indonesian forces exchanged fire with gunmen Sunday near where two American schoolteachers and an Indonesian were shot dead the previous day, police said.

``At 8 a.m. there was a shootout between our forces and an armed group. We have no other details,″ Papua military chief Maj. Gen. Simbolon Mahadin said in a telephone interview.

Sunday’s attack happened near the Grasberg gold mine run by a U.S. corporation where three people, including two Americans were killed by gunmen on Saturday. In that attack, at least 10 other people, including six Americans, were wounded.

It was the bloodiest incident involving foreigners in almost four decades of intermittent warfare between government forces and separatist rebels in Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua.

Indonesian armed forces chief Gen. Endriartono Sudarto was to visit Timika on Sunday, the nearest town to the mine, run by PT Freeport Indonesia, an affiliate of New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper-and-Gold Inc. The company has long been criticized by human rights advocates for allegedly cooperating with Indonesian security forces in suppressing pro-independence activities. Freeport denies any human rights abuses.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, although police said there was a possibility that separatist rebels of the Free Papua Movement may have been behind it.

``This is serious. All the security chiefs are up here. More troops are coming,″ said Sgt. Maj. Ahmad Ranto, a spokesman for the military base in Timika.

The military command deployed two infantry companies _ comprising about 250 men _ to search the jungles and capture the attackers, he said. These soldiers were involved in Sunday’s clash.

The attack is likely to hinder work at Grasberg, said to be the world’s most profitable mining operation. Another U.S. company, energy giant Exxon-Mobil, was forced to temporarily cease production of natural gas at its plant in Aceh, on Indonesia’s western end, when it came under attack from separatists there.

The latest killings will likely further hurt Indonesia’s ability to attract foreign investment, which has already plunged to record lows because of political instability and endemic corruption.

Police identified the dead as Ted Burcon and Rickey Spear, both Americans, and Bambang Riwanto, an Indonesian. The Americans were teachers working at a school at the mine. Their hometowns were not released.

Workers at Freeport said they were still in shock over the killings of the headmaster and school teachers from the Tembaga Pura International School.

``We are pretty devastated, especially the children at the school,″ said a teacher who asked not to be named for security reasons. ``Basically all the staff are wiped out. We are all wiped out.″

Indonesia authorities said 14 people were injured in the attack, but the company statement said 10 were injured.

Eight of those wounded in the attack were flown to Townsville, in Australia’s Queensland state. Six of them were in a stable condition, a spokeswoman at the hospital there said Sunday.

One person was in a serious but stable condition, downgraded from critical, while another was still undergoing surgery, the spokeswoman said. One of the eight was a 6-year-old girl.

Papua, 2,300 miles east of Jakarta, was occupied by Indonesian forces when the Dutch colonial administration withdrew in 1963. The move sparked immediate resistance from a ragtag band of Papuan nationalists who have kept up a low-level insurgency ever since.

Indonesia formally acquired the vast territory in 1969 after a U.N.-sanctioned ``Act of Free Choice″ in which about 1,000 tribal chiefs and elders hand picked by the secret police expressed their desire to unite with Indonesia.

Critics, including senior officials of the United Nations at the time, have described the process as a sham. Thousands of civilians have perished over the years in intermittent military campaigns aimed at crushing the rebellion.

Many Papuans see themselves as being under a form of colonial rule, and leading politicians have appealed to the United Nations to organize an independence referendum, akin to that in East Timor in 1999.

But the campaign faltered after last year’s assassination of Theys Eluay _ a leading pro-independence politician. Prosecutors have named 10 members of Indonesia’s elite, U.S.-trained special forces as suspects in the slaying.

Pro-independence activists have expressed doubt that the rebels carried out Saturday’s attack. They noted that the gunmen were armed with M-16 automatic rifles, while the guerrillas normally use only bows and arrows.

Albert Rumbekwan, member of Elsham, a leading human rights group in the province, said the attack occurred within the security perimeter of the heavily guarded mine complex, and only 1.5 miles from a military post.

``It is tragic that civilians were the casualties,″ Rumbekwan said. ``This is a reflection that security forces cannot protect the civilians despite the tight security.″

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