Three Indonesian soldiers were killed in a gun battle with armed separatist rebels in restive Papua province, where over a dozen construction workers were massacred last year, the military said Thursday
The soldiers had just arrived in Yigi village in Nduga district on Thursday morning to guard the construction of a bridge when they were attacked by the separatists.
“They were suddenly attacked by a large group, between 50 to 70 people,” the military spokesman for Papua region Muhammad Aidi told AFP Thursday.
“Three of our members died in the attack after getting shot in their chest and back,” Aidi said.
The military managed to take control of the situation and forced the rebels to flee.
The body of one separatist rebel was found at the scene.
“We believe between seven to ten people from their side have also been killed but their bodies had been taken away,” Aidi said.
The bodies of the soldiers were flown to a hospital in Timika city, Aidi said.
The military believe the attack was orchestrated by the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB), which claimed responsibility for the December attack on construction workers at a remote jungle camp, he added.
At least 19 employees of state-owned contractor Istaka Karya were massacred by the rebels when they were building bridges and roads as part of efforts to boost infrastructure in the impoverished region, the military has said.
Indonesia routinely blames separatists for violence in Papua and conflicting accounts are common.
Indonesian security forces have for years been dogged by allegations of widespread rights abuses against Papua’s ethnic Melanesian population including extrajudicial killings of activists and peaceful protestors.
Papua shares a border with independent Papua New Guinea (PNG), just north of Australia.
A former Dutch colony, Papua declared itself independent in 1961, but neighbouring Indonesia took control of the resource-rich region two years later on the condition it hold an independence referendum.
The subsequent vote to stay part of Indonesia, which allowed just 1,026 West Papuans – less than 0.2% of the population – to cast ballots, was widely considered a sham.
Since then, efforts by different separatist groups to win back the region’s independence have been met with fierce military crackdowns by Indonesia, with some estimates putting the number of dead as high as half a million. Nor have the profits from West Papua’s plentiful gas, palm oil, gold or copper resources remained among the region’s peoples; despite being the largest contributor to Indonesia’s GDP, the two provinces that make up the region remain the nation’s poorest.
Jakarta keeps a tight grip on the resource-rich region, which experienced several spasms of violence this summer including the killing of three local people, allegedly by rebels.