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Rebels Demand Indonesia Negotiate on Papua Independence

A relative uses her phone to take photos of the coffins containing the bodies of the victims of separatist attack in Nduga district, at Moses Kilangin Airport in Timika, Papua province, Indonesia, Dec. 7, 2018.

Rebels in Indonesia's troubled Papua province demanded Friday that the government hold negotiations on self-determination for the province and warned of more attacks.

Sebby Sambom, spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Movement, said in a telephone interview they attacked a government construction site last weekend because they believe the project is conducted by the military.

"Trans-Papua road projects are being carried out by Indonesian military and that is a risk they must bear," Sambom said. "We want them to know that we don't need development, what we want is independence."

Indonesia's government, which for decades had a policy of sending Javanese and other Indonesians to settle in Papua to dilute the number of indigenous people, is now trying to spur economic development to dampen the separatist movement.

Local media have reported that army engineers are involved in several sections of a trans-Papua road network that will connect cities and districts in the province.

"Our leaders have declared a war zone since last year and warned that the trans-Papua road construction should be stopped, but Indonesia has ignored it," Sambom said.

He called for the government to agree to peace talks similar to ones that led to another province, Aceh, becoming semiautonomous, or a "real referendum" on independence as occurred in the former Indonesian territory of East Timor.

"If Aceh and East Timor can get that opportunity, why don't we?" said Sambom, who said he was speaking from an area near the border with neighboring Papua New Guinea.

Papua is a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea. A declaration of independence from Dutch rule on Dec. 1, 1961, was rejected by the Dutch and later by Indonesia.

An insurgency has simmered in Papua since the early 1960s, when Indonesia annexed the region. It was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored ballot that was seen as a sham by many.

Following Sunday's attack, security forces have retrieved the bodies of 16 workers employed by PT. Istaka Karya, a state-owned construction company, to build bridges on a section of the trans-Papua road, Papua police spokesman Suryadi Diaz said.

Authorities believe the armed group killed 19 construction workers, based on the accounts of survivors. They have rescued 24 survivors, including seven workers, and are searching for two missing workers and the bodies of three others.

A soldier at a military post near the site was also killed by the armed group.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has ordered the military and police to arrest the perpetrators of the worst separatist attack during his administration and said he will not tolerate "armed criminals" in Papua or the rest of the country.

He said the attack will not dissuade his government from continuing to develop Papua, including the 4,600-kilometer (2,875-mile) trans-Papua road, which his administration has claimed is widely supported by local people.

The road, which will stretch from Sorong in West Papua province to Merauke in Papua province, is expected to be completed next year and help boost economic development in both provinces.

National police chief Tito Karnavian on Wednesday estimated the strength of the armed group at not more than 50 people with about 20 weapons, and said more than 150 police and soldiers have been sent to restore security in Nduga district, a stronghold of the separatists.

Sambom, however, claimed the rebels have 29 operational area commands in Papua, each with 2,500 members.

"We vow to intensify our fight for independence with guerrilla hit-and-run attacks," he said.