Separatist fighting leaves 31 dead in Indonesian province

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Security forces battled independence activists armed with bows and arrows in Indonesia's remote Irian Jaya province, leaving at least 31 people dead, human rights workers said Saturday.

John Rumbiak, a spokesman for the Irian Jaya-based Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy, said many of the victims were shot to death by police after a clash on Friday. He said the violence continued into Saturday, and other victims were hacked to death with machetes or shot with arrows by pro-independence rebels.

A priest at a Catholic church in the town of Wamena, Tarsisius Awe, said others, including two young children, died when the houses in which they were sheltering were set on fire.

The state Antara news agency said at least 45 people were seriously injured.

Hospital officials said mass burials were held for the dead late Saturday.

The clashes erupted on Friday after police and soldiers lowered the separatist Free Papua Movement's ''Morning Star'' flag, which activists had raised. Flying the flag is against Indonesian law and people caught doing so face up to 15 years in jail.

Irian Jaya's police chief, Brig. Gen. Silvanus Wenas, said reinforcements had been sent to Wamena and that 59 people had been arrested so far. He said the security situation in Wamena had improved after soldiers forced many of the activists and separatist rebels out of the town.

But Rumbiak said the situation in Wamena remained tense, as thousands of frightened residents locked themselves in their houses to escape the bloodshed.

He said that in the regional capital Jayapura, about 1,000 students protested Saturday to demand an end to the fighting.

Rebels maintain that the region, about 2,300 miles east of Jakarta, has been independent since 1961, when its Dutch rulers agreed to allow self-rule.

But Indonesian forces occupied the then-colony in 1963. Jakarta's sovereignty was rubber-stamped by a hastily convened assembly of village chiefs, which pro-independence activists dismiss as a sham.

Meanwhile, west of Irian Jaya in Indonesia's troubled Maluku islands, one person was killed when Muslims clashed with Christians in the town of Ambon, residents said.

The archipelago, known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial rule, has been plagued by sectarian fighting that has claimed nearly 4,000 lives since January 1999.


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