Thu, 03 Jul 2003

Elite soldiers withdrawn from Papua

Nethy Dharma Somba The Jakarta Post Jayapura, Papua

Following increasing allegations of torture and civilian deaths, the Army withdrew on Wednesday 98 of its 158 elite Special Force (Kopassus) and Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) soldiers deployed to crackdown on separatists in Papua.

The remainder have been retasked with persuading rebels to voluntarily return seven machine guns still outstanding from a raid on the Jayawijaya Military District arsenal on April 4.

Chief of the Trikora Military Command overseeing Papua, Maj. Gen. Nurdin Zainal, interviewed in Jayapura on Wednesday, said the pullout followed a quieting down of rebel activity in areas considered to be Papua Free Organization (OPM) strongholds.

He said the situation in Wamena, the capital of Jayawijaya district, was under control. Security in the villages of Kuyawage and Sinakma was yet to be restored.

He said the military had identified where the remaining weapons were held and was negotiating to persuade the rebels to return the arms.

He was not asked to elaborate.

Human rights organizations and religious leaders in the largely Christian province say at least 16 civilians and rebels have been killed during the military operation to retrieve the 29 arms stolen in the raid that left two soldiers dead.

Both soldiers and civilians have been implicated in the attack.

Hundreds of villagers have been forced to seek refuge in forest areas in the regency amid fears of intimidation and torture by the soldiers.

The alleged human rights abuses have fueled calls for the government to set up an independent team to investigate.

Papuan Police have also launched an operation to persuade rebels to surrender and for locals to drop their support of OPM in a bid to restore security and order in the country's easternmost province.

Police claim that dozens of Papuans have surrendered their arms to the security authorities and declared their loyalty to Jakarta.

Senior government and military officials say Papua will be the target of a massive campaign after its war in Aceh to "crush" Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatists ends.