Activists display placards at a rally in front of the Netherlands embassy in Jakarta on March 12, 2020 to draw awareness to Indonesia's Papua region. Photo AFP/Bay Imoyo

JAKARTA – With most Indonesians preoccupied with a coronavirus outbreak, security officials were caught off guard when at least three gunmen penetrated the US-based Freeport mining company’s residential housing area on Papua’s south coast, killing a New Zealand employee and wounding six other local workers.

The March 30 attack near the city of Timika was the most audacious yet by suspected members of the rebel West Papuan Liberation Army (TPNB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has waged a war for independence since the 1960s.

It is not expected to affect work at the Grasberg, the world’s largest copper and gold mine, although it comes at a time when production is down by more than 50% as it undergoes transition from an open pit to a wholly underground operation.

After a series of conflicting messages from affiliates and allies, including a condolence letter to the family of New Zealand victim Graeme Wall, 57, the OPM finally issued a statement claiming “full responsibility” for the shooting, which was carried out in broad daylight in an office carpark.

It said the attack was led by “Brigadier-General” Guspi Waker and Jhoni Botak, under the command of “Lieutenant-General” Lekagak Telenggen and “General” Goliath Tabuni, and warned that keeping the mine open “will only endanger the lives of workers and other civilians.”

“The OPM/TNPB saw no other alternative but to accept that it is at war, to declare openly that it is at war, and that it is determined to win this war for the sake of the survival and respect of the right of self-determination of the people of West Papua,” it added.

A Papuan student with the West Papua Morning Star flag painted on her face during a rally in Jakarta, August 28, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

The surprise raid deep into the lowlands was a departure from more than 90 armed incidents over the past decade which have mostly focused on the mountain road linking Timika with the mining town of Tembagapura in Papua’s Central Highlands.

The mine site and surrounding area is guarded by several companies of the paramilitary Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob), with a battalion of Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) troops securing a wide outer perimeter that stretches across rugged terrain.

Freeport said in a statement that it had evacuated its offices and a nearby shopping area in Kuala Kencana, opened by president Suharto in 1995 as American parent company Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold ramped up production at the Grasberg.

The company has also closed a light industrial park adjoining the purpose-built settlement of 18,000 residents, most of them employees and the families of Freeport and their contractors.

Kuala Kencana lies about 25 kilometers northwest of Timika and about half way to the point where the single, 112-kilometer-long access road leaves the lowlands and starts to climb more than 3,000 meters up precipitous mountain ridges.

“It is critical that everyone remains on high alert and be vigilant in reporting anything suspicious in communities and work areas,” Freeport said after the first major attack on the firm since the Indonesian government assumed majority control in late 2018.

Aerial view of Indonesia’s The Grasberg mine in West Papua, which the Indonesia government took control of from US mining giant Freeport McMoRan in 2018. Picture: Facebook

Busy with efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak, the government has yet to comment the attack. Papua and West Papua have so far reported only 10 out of Indonesia’s 1,677 confirmed cases of Covid-19, but officials have nonetheless called for a lockdown to prevent it spreading.

The last reported incident around Freeport was on March 15, when security forces killed four separatists in a gunfight near Tembagapura. Earlier, on February 28 and March 2, rebels killed one policeman and wounded two others in three separate attacks near the town.

A long-time employee, Wall is the first foreigner killed since an Australian worker died in an ambush on the Tembagapura road in July 2009 that forced Freeport to begin using armored buses to transport its workers to the mine site.

In an open letter to Wall’s family, which opened with the Maori greeting “kia ora,” Rev Socratez Yoman, president of the Alliance of West Papuan Baptist Churches, said he shared their sadness and deep sorrow at his death, but noted that Papua is a “market for conflict and violence” created, he said, by government security forces. 

The letter inferred that the military was responsible for Wall’s “sacrifice,” pointing to a previous incident in 2002 when two American teachers and their Indonesian companion were killed on the mountain road when gunmen sprayed their utility vehicle with bullets.

The police initially blamed the military for that ambush, but an unprecedented US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) inquiry, conducted jointly with the Indonesian police, led to the arrest of OPM member Anthonius Wamang and 11 other defendants.

OPM insurgents have never been well armed, but they do have automatic weapons, mostly seized in clashes with government security forces. They appear to have had greater access to ammunition in recent years, all carrying the imprint of state-owned arms manufacturer Pindad.

Free Papua Movement (OPM) rebels display the outlawed “Morning Star” flag in the jungle of the eastern Papua province. Photo: AFP/Banjir Ambarita

Earlier this year, an Indonesian soldier was jailed for life for selling 2,600 rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition to the OPM while on guard duty around Timika, a ramshackle settlement of 200,000 people. Two other soldiers were also imprisoned for between two and a half and 15 years.

The government insists on referring to the rebels as Kelompok Kriminal Bersenjata (Armed Criminal Group) and refuses to engage in dialogue because of fears it will lead to calls for a referendum on independence, similar to events in East Timor in 1999.

Instead, by strengthening its police and military presence, particularly in the Central Highlands, President Joko Widodo’s administration has continued its security approach while expanding economic and social programs across the resource-rich province.

Last January, the Constitutional Court unsurprisingly rejected a request by a Papuan civil society group for a judicial review of controversial Law No 12/1969, which established then West Irian (now Papua and West Papua provinces) as autonomous Indonesian territory.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.