JAYAPURA, Indonesia (Reuters) – Over a thousand people rallied in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, on Tuesday demanding a referendum on independence from Indonesia and rejecting the forthcoming elections, a Reuters witness said.
Independence activists in resources-rich Papua, on the western half of New Guinea island, have waged a campaign to separate from Indonesia for decades.
Tensions have increased in recent weeks ahead of national and local elections in Indonesia, with attacks against the military and an apparent split within the separatist movement over whether to continue the fight for independence.
The protesters carried banners with the words “Election no, referendum yes,” “Stop genocide for Melanesian race in West Papua,” and demanded the withdrawal of troops from the province.
Nicolas Jouwe, a separatist leader from the Free Papua Movement (OPM), returned to Indonesia from exile last week at the invitation of Jakarta for talks with Indonesian government officials.
The talks were aimed at reaching a peaceful solution for Papua. Jouwe then flew to Papua on Sunday.
Indonesia took over Papua in 1969 from Dutch colonial rule, following a vote by community leaders which was widely criticized as flawed. The Indonesian military has kept a tight rein on this easternmost part of the country, and has been criticized in the past for human rights abuses.
The remote resource-rich province is home to the Grasberg mine, which is operated by Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc of the United States. The mine has the world’s largest recoverable copper reserves and largest gold reserves.
Papua police chief F.X. Bagus Ekodanto told Reuters one soldier and two civilians had been killed in attacks this month, while another soldier was shot and wounded on Monday. He said a separatist group had led the attack in which a soldier died.