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Killings in Indonesian Province Investigated by FBI - 2002-11-05

Indonesian officials say four members of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation have visited the separatist province of Papua, to learn more about the deaths of two Americans and an Indonesian killed in an ambush in late August. The victims worked for the U.S.-owned mining giant Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold, whose presence in the province has been controversial. It was supposed to have been a pleasant Saturday afternoon outing. A group of eleven teachers and some family from an international school linked to the Freeport mine went on a picnic. But as their convoy climbed the steep, mountainous road leading home to the town of Tembagapura, it was ambushed. When the gunfire stopped, two Americans and one Indonesian were dead, and 10 others were wounded. The murders sent shockwaves throughout the international business community and the Indonesian government in Jakarta, in part because international staff had rarely been targeted in Papua's long-running conflict with the central government.

John Rumbiak is with the Papuan Institute for the Study and Advocacy of Human Rights, or Elsham - which launched an investigation into the murders immediately after they occurred. He alleges Indonesia's special forces, known as Kopassus, are involved. "We found that by interviewing witnesses, Freeport employees, as well as the information that we obtained through the survivors … indicates strongly that this incident on the 31st of August implicates the Kopassus," he says. Thousands of Indonesian soldiers and police are based in Papua Province - the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea. They have been fighting a low-intensity conflict against separatist rebels since the 1960's. Papua was integrated with Indonesia in 1969, after a special ballot. But independence supporters say the vote was rigged in Indonesia's favor and they want the United Nations to review the approval it gave to it.

To many, Papua is worth fighting over. Located some 2,300 kilometers east of the Indonesian capital, the province has vast mineral deposits, including the gold and copper mined by PT Freeport Indonesia, the local subsidiary of the U.S.-based Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold. Freeport's position as the only major foreign investor in a largely underdeveloped province puts it in a unique position. Founded in 1969, Freeport's Grasberg open pit mine is the second largest copper mine in the world and it boasts the world's largest gold deposits. It reportedly earns $1 million a day, and it is Indonesia's largest taxpayer. Freeport say its gross revenues have fluctuated between $1.75 billion and $2 billion a year between 1995 and 1999. During the same period, it has channeled between $600 million and one $1.2 billion a year back to Indonesia - in taxes, wages and reinvestment - and development work. Those projects include education, health and agricultural projects aimed at improving the local community.

The Indonesian government considers Freeport and other mining and oil projects to be "vital state assets" - which are protected by the Armed Forces. And that has generated some controversy. Human rights groups have charged that in the past, Freeport has provided the Indonesian military with logistical support that was used in operations against the separatists. Indonesia's national human rights group also says that in 1996 the military provoked violent incidents near the Freeport mine in order to justify a crackdown against the separatists and earn protection money. After that incident, rights groups say Freeport paid the Indonesian Armed Forces a lump sum $35 million dollars for security - followed by $11 million a year to follow. Freeport has consistently denied those allegations. Elsham says the military is up to its old tricks, and it was involved in the killing of the Freeport staffers, to prove to Freeport that it cannot operate without protection from the Armed Forces. An Indonesian Foreign Minister spokesman Marty Natalegawa dismisses the allegation the military was involved in the killings. "To suggest that we are, somehow the Indonesian government is behind it, is really too much."

Freeport McMoran has condemned the killings, but has said little else. Freeport staff who witnessed the attack have declined to speak to the media and officials from Freeport Indonesia declined to be interviewed for this report.

That silence only contributes to the controversy, says Sidney Jones, an analyst with the Jakarta office of the think-tank the International Crisis Group. "There are a lot of rumors floating around that funds for security are diminishing and the military isn't getting as much as it has, and that might be a factor for why the military might be involved in these shootings and so on," says Ms. Jones. "But it would help matters if there was more information coming from the company itself about exactly what its security operations are, exactly how much its paying the security personnel including military personnel, but what we have is this stone wall of silence." In the meantime, the investigation into the killings has made little progress. Members of the rebel, Free Papua Movement, have denied Jakarta's assertion that they were responsible.

U.S. consular officials went to Papua to work with Indonesian authorities. Amidst the finger-pointing between Elsham, the Indonesian government and the rebels, the U.S. Ambassador in Jakarta, Ralph Boyce, says he considers the investigation still open. "We are very pleased with the access and the cooperation that we have received from the police," he says. "And we will continue to work with them on this case, which I consider very much an open matter on who murdered the unfortunate victims in Papua." Indonesia's chief investigator Police General Made Pastika confirmed that members of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation have visited Papua to discuss the case with authorities. The Indonesian government has taken steps to improve rights and appease demands for separatism in Papua. The National Assembly passed special autonomy legislation, which would allow Papuans more say over the revenue derived from their natural resources. But with many Papuans seeing little in the way of accountability for killings there, it is doubtful new legislation will be seen as enough.