JAKARTA, Indonesia - A member of an armed separatist group in Indonesia's Papua region has disputed police claims that it's holding villagers hostage during a standoff with security forces.
The remote region's long-simmering insurgency has flared in the past month, with one paramilitary police officer killed and six others wounded in attacks by the National Liberation Army of West Papua. The two sides are also waging a PR war, with police calling the group an armed criminal gang and accusing it of attacks on civilians.
Hendrik Wanmang, who described himself as a commander of the armed group that goes by the Indonesian acronym TNP, said in an interview Friday that Banti and Kimbeli villagers can't go to an area the separatists define as a battlefield with security forces because it's unsafe. But otherwise villagers are free to go to their farms and move about as they please, he said.
Police on Thursday said a group of about 100 including 25 gunmen were occupying the two villages and preventing 1,300 people from leaving. Several hundred of the people are migrant workers from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
"It's not true, it's only the provocation of Indonesian military and police with the aim of damaging our image," Wanmang told The Associated Press. "People there are safe, both natives and non-natives are free to do activities as usual."
Wanmang was one of two commanders who signed an Oct. 21 statement warning of unspecified retribution against security forces for alleged brutality against indigenous Papuans.
The letter declared an area near the U.S.-owned Grasberg gold and copper mine as a battlefield.
The mine owned by Phoenix, Arizona-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. is a source of tension in the region due to environmental damage and indigenous Papuans' resentment at profits from local resources being sent abroad.
A low-level insurgency for independence has simmered in Papua since it was transferred from Dutch to Indonesian rule in 1963. The region, which makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 following a U.N.-sponsored ballot of tribal leaders that has since been dismissed as a sham.
Indonesia maintains a heavy security presence in the region and restricts foreign journalists from freely reporting there.
Wanmang said police descriptions of TNP as an armed criminal group and accusations of crimes against civilians were a tactic to discredit the Papuan independence movement.
"We are not a new group, we are not a criminal group," he said. "We are separatist group who fought for Papua from generation to generation demanding the sovereignty of the people of Papua, demanding Papuan independence, separate from Indonesia."
Security minister Wiranto, who goes by one name, has asked security officials to peacefully persuade the separatists to leave.
Military commander Gatot Nurmantyo said in a statement Friday that the villagers are "hostages" and the military is conducting surveillance of their villages. With police, it hopes to negotiate a solution but is readying other measures.
"We are also preparing ways that are hard and must be done very thoroughly," he said. "Currently we are working closely with police and setting up a joint team in handling the problem."