JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia's government on Tuesday rejected a demand by rebels in the country's restive Papua province to hold negotiations on the territory's self-determination, following a Dec. 2 attack on a construction site that left at least 17 dead.
An insurgency has simmered in Papua since the early 1960s, when Indonesia annexed the region that was a former Dutch colony. It was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored ballot that was seen as a sham by many.
Sebby Sambom, spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Movement, said in a telephone interview last Friday that the attack on the government construction site was carried out because the group believes the project is being conducted by the military.
He called on 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.
Wiranto, Indonesia's coordinating minister for political, legal and security matters, told a news conference in the capital, Jakarta, that the government will not open talks with the armed group, which he said was trying to instill fear into people.
"We will not talk with criminals," said Wiranto, who goes by a single name.
Security forces have retrieved the bodies of 17 workers hired to build bridges on a section of the trans-Papua road, Papua province military spokesman Col. Muhammad Aidi said. A soldier at a military post near the site was also killed.
They have rescued 27, including seven workers, and are searching for four others with stab wounds who are still missing. Aidi said rebel strongholds in Nduga district attacked a rebuilt military post Tuesday in the same district, injuring two soldiers in a shootout.
National police chief Tito Karnavian estimated the strength of the armed group in the district at not more than 50 people with about 20 weapons, and said more than 150 police and soldiers had been sent to hunt down the perpetrators.
More than 1,500 villagers in Mbua, Yall and Yigi villages have fled into the jungle because of the fighting, which witnesses said has intensified in the mountainous district since last week and killed at least four civilians.
A Christian priest from Kingmi church, Benny Giay, said two of the four men were members of the church assembly. They were killed inside the church by security forces during the evacuation process of the bodies of workers and survivors in Mbua and Yigi villages between Dec. 4 and 5, he said. Four other villagers were reportedly injured.
Giay said villagers who fled into the mountainous jungle were in danger of being sick from cold and hunger.
"All the victims were noncombatant," he said. "We urged all sides to restrain because innocent civilians will become the victims in this armed conflict."
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press last Friday, Sambom, who claimed that the rebels have 29 operational area commands in Papua, each with 2,500 members, vowed to intensify the fight for independence with guerrilla hit-and-run attacks.