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Jakarta Says Yes to Talks, No to Papua Independence

The Indonesian government says it will never consider independence for its troubled and remote Papua Province - but it is willing to talk about more autonomy.

As tension builds in Indonesia's far-eastern province of Papua, the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says it will never give up the resource-rich region.

Presidential spokesman Andi Mallarangeng says, however, that the government is open to talks with Papuan activists about regional autonomy.

"The sovereignty of Indonesia over Papua is final," he said. "There is no dialogue on the Papuan independence, no dialogue for the so-called historical review - but we are prepared to have a dialogue on the implementation of regional autonomy."

Papua officially became a part of Indonesia through a now-discredited, U.N.-sponsored "Act of Free Choice" in 1969, in which 1,000 handpicked Papuans voted to join the country. The whole of Indonesia had been a Dutch colony until 1949.

A low-level insurgency has been simmering there ever since, fueled by brutality on the part of the Indonesian military. Jakarta granted Papua regional autonomy in 2003, but then split the province into two, in a move Papuan leaders saw as a way to divide the independence movement.

Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group says separatist sentiment is growing in the province.

"There is by all accounts a growing radicalization of the Papuan elite ... but we are also dealing with a situation where there is in fact a growing movement outside Indonesia to try to get a review of the Act of Free Choice," she said.

Jones does not think the international support for Papuan independence is strong enough to worry Jakarta, but the province has been the focus of unwanted international attention.

Last month, four members of the security forces were killed in clashes with protesters demanding the closure of the U.S.-owned Freeport mine, the world's largest gold and copper mine. The protesters claim the mine has polluted the environment.

Amnesty International has called for Jakarta to allow journalists and independent monitors into the province to investigate the human rights situation there.

Willy Mandowen is a leader of the Papua Presidium, a peaceful pro-independence group. He says abuses are taking place that are currently hidden from outsiders.

"I think this is a humanitarian issue, there are silent things happening," he said. "When we talk about Papua we are not only referring to towns, we refer to villages far away and therefore I think that the presence of monitors will help."

Earlier this month, Australia granted temporary asylum to 42 Papuans who claimed they had fled "genocide" in the province.

Australia's move angered Jakarta, which denies abuses are continuing in Papua, and Indonesian-Australian relations have deteriorated badly as a result.