An Indonesian policeman was shot dead and another was seriously wounded near a giant US-owned copper and gold mine Wednesday, authorities said, the latest in a string of shootings in restive Papua province.
The killing comes as police and armed separatists are locked in a standoff near Freeport-McMoRan's mine, one of the world's biggest, with both sides blaming each other for what police have claimed was a hostage crisis.
Local authorities said unidentified gunman opened fire on a police patrol near the vast Grasberg mine in the early morning hours on Wednesday, following reports that a Freeport employee had been shot in the thigh on Tuesday.
‘The gunmen started shooting at the patrolling officers from behind before dawn. It was pitch black so we did not see who the shooters were,’ Papua police spokesman Suryadi Diaz told AFP.
One officer died at the scene while another was shot in the back, suffering severe injuries, Diaz added.
Papua has faced a low-level insurgency since it was annexed by Indonesia in the late sixties.
Freeport's mine is frequently a flashpoint in the struggle for independence and a bigger share of the region's rich resources.
Police said they suspected Wednesday's shooters were from the same separatist group who they claimed have been keeping some 1,300 residents in some nearby villages against their will.
Authorities claim residents have been prevented from entering or leaving their small communities since the standoff erupted this week.
‘Their motive has been pretty clear since the beginning -- they believe they own the rich land where a big company is operating, but they are still poor and aren't getting justice so they want to disrupt Freeport's business,’ Diaz said.
‘We are still trying to negotiate. But it seems unlikely at this point. They (the separatists) are not even willing to send anyone to talk to us,’ he added.
A spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-OPM), which is linked to the Free Papua independence movement, said his group was behind the early morning shooting and other recent gun battles.
But he insisted that armed activists were protecting villagers from authorities rather than taking them hostage.
‘The shooting near Freeport this morning was our doing,’ Hendrik Wamang, who said he is one of the TPN-OPM's commanders, told AFP.
‘(But) the hostage-taking issue is made up...We're afraid they (residents) will be hit by bullets. We don't want anything bad happen to them.’
A security source previously told AFP that control over gold-panning operations in the area was behind the tense standoff.
The region is generally off limits to foreign journalists, making it difficult to verify the conflicting accounts.
Shootings in the area are not uncommon, including that left a policeman dead last month.
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