Violence, a US mining giant, and Papua politics

On Saturday, two Americans and one Indonesian were killed in an ambush.

Indonesian soldiers were searching the fog-shrouded mountains Monday near the world's richest gold and copper mine for the killers of two American school teachers and one Indonesian.

Seven other Americans and one Indonesian girl were also wounded Saturday in one of the worst attacks on foreigners in Indonesia's modern history. The deaths come against an increasingly chaotic backdrop for the foreign mining and oil companies in Indonesia.

The roadside ambush – possibly by a renegade separatist group – occurred at 9,000 feet in the early afternoon as three Toyota Land Cruisers carried foreign teachers and local employees to a school run by Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. of Louisiana, which operates the Grasberg mine in Indonesia's province of Papua.

The dead, say sources close to the investigation, were apparently killed after two of the cars were stopped. The trailing car managed to back out of the ambush and called an Indonesian military unit for help. All three victims died from automatic weapons-fire to the head. No money was taken, and no demands were made.

Different theories as to who was behind the attack are offered by security officials, diplo- mats, and local researchers. But they all agree that it had nothing to do with specifically anti-American sentiments or the war on terror. Rather, the huge Grasberg mine has been the glittering jewel at the center of a struggle for political and economic power in the remote, impoverished province for nearly 30 years.

Both the Indonesian military and a popular independence movement see the mine as a resource to be exploited and are disappointed about how much they've been getting out of it. Activists have blamed Freeport for complicity in human rights abuses by the military and in environmental damage over the years. The company denies such claims, noting its environmental efforts and local aid programs.

Indonesian provincial military commander, Maj. Gen. Mahidin Simbolon, told reporters over the weekend that the independence movement's armed wing, called the Free Papua Movement (OPM), was responsible for the attack, specifically blaming OPM leader Kelly Kwalik. On Sunday, the military said it had killed a suspected rebel near the site of the attack.

The independence movement's political wing, which calls itself the Papua Presidium, denied the allegations of involvement in a statement: "The armed wing of the liberation movement has never attacked or killed foreign nationals as a strategy to gain international attention.''

"This doesn't fit the OPM's profile at all,'' says a Western diplomat. "The independence leadership has made a real commitment to nonviolence in the past few years."

Since the 1999 fall of Indonesian leader Suharto, Freeport has been trying to improve its local relations. Tom Beanal, a leader of the Amungme tribe which has the best ancestral claim to the mine, was named to the board of Freeport's Indonesian subsidiary two years ago. Mr. Beanal is also one of the two most popular and recognizable members of the Papua Presidium. His presence on Freeport's board has angered some military officials.

Local newspapers have been filled with speculation that the Indonesian military, led by its Kopassus Special Forces, could have been behind the attack to send a message to Freeport that it needs to pay more for its protection, as well as provide a pretext for a crackdown on separatists. Late last year, top independence leader Theys Eluay was assassinated. Though no charges have been pressed, the Indonesian police say he was killed by a Kopassus unit.

But for now, intelligence officials close to the situation say they are focusing on a rogue Papuan group led by Titus Murib, a volatile former member of the OPM who was pushed out of the movement.

Mr. Murib, a shadowy figure from the western Dani tribe, which lives in the island's central mountains, kidnapped two Belgian filmmakers last July. He was also blamed for attacking and holding the town of Ilaga and its airfield for about a week last September. The Belgians were released after about a month.

"Murib operates on his own, and he's proven himself to be a violent guy, and showed that he really savored all of the attention when he took the hostages,'' says an investigator who's closely following developments. "We're just hoping that the military doesn't take any harsh or illogical moves now against the presidium."

Brigham Golden, a Columbia University graduate student who's writing a doctoral dissertation on Freeport's interaction with the independence movement, says Mr. Murib's involvement wouldn't necessarily rule out military involvement.

He and other analysts say the Indonesian military has frequently used militia groups as proxies in Papua and other provinces. "There's never been an OPM attack that involves automatic weapons – the use of them is a sign of likely military involvement," says Mr. Golden. "The military are the ones that have the most to gain from instability."

For instance, Freeport's mine was closed by rioting in 1996. Afterwards, the company built, at its own expense, a $37 million base for the Indonesian military in the Timika area.

The survivors of the attack are in stable condition at a hospital in Townsville, Australia. The Americans killed were Edwin Burcon, the head of Freeport's international school, and Rickey Spears, a teacher. The company said the mine will remain open. Freeport's Chairman James Moffet said in a statement: "Our primary concern is for the safety of our work force, their families and the well-being of the injured."

This is a difficult period for companies like Freeport, ExxonMobil, and Newmont Gold, which are caught between public anger at their long association with the Suharto dictatorship, and a military and police establishment often funded by extortion and other illegal business operations. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, estimates that 70 percent of the military's budget comes from such ventures.

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