Police arrest attendees of the Third Papuan People Congress in Abepura on the outskirts of Jayapura. Photo: Reuters


INDONESIAN security forces yesterday fired on a mass meeting of West Papuans and arrested leaders and activists after participants at the Papuan People's Congress declared independence for the restive region.

 

There were reports at least one person was killed as thousands of terrified delegates stampeded from the oval where the congress was being held under the close watch of up to 5000 security personnel.

 

''It started about 30 minutes after the congress was completed,'' said Oktovianus Pogau, an activist. ''People were running in all directions … [the military] and police are everywhere on the streets, armed.''


Earlier, representatives of more than 200 indigenous West Papuan tribes had elected Forkorus Yoboisembut as their president and Edison Waromi as prime minister. Mr Yoboisembut then declared independence from Jakarta's rule, prompting police to detain him.

 

According to another witness account, the leader's bodyguards attempted to stop the arrest and then police responded by shooting their weapons. Mr Yoboisembut and Mr Waromi were both reportedly detained, along with other activists and organisers.

 

West Papua's military commander, Major-General Erfi Triassunu, confirmed the shooting, but insisted it was only a warning. He told the Jakarta Globe there were no casualties but said the shots were fired in response to the announcement of independence.

 

Jayapura Police Chief Imam Setiawan said hundreds of people had been arrested for subversion, Kompas online reported.

The Papuan People's Congress is a hugely significant event for indigenous West Papuans, just the third held in the past 50 years. Several thousand people attended from all over Papua, representatives of the region's 200-plus tribes.

 

The first congress occurred in 1961, when the western half of New Guinea island was still in Dutch hands. The second occurred in 2001 during the brief ''Papuan Spring'', when the former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid allowed open political discussion about the future of the region.

 

West Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a highly controversial vote involving 1025 delegates hand-picked by Jakarta and kept under guard by the military, supposedly satisfying a United Nations requirement that West Papuans be given an act of self-determination.

 

Ever since, separatist sentiment has been widespread as the Indonesian military, police and intelligence services ruthlessly cracked down on dissent, arresting, torturing and murdering West Papuan leaders and independence supporters.

 

Indonesia's president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono vowed last year for constructive communications with aggrieved West Papuans but has yet to act on his pledge. In the meantime, indigenous West Papuans have ramped up protest activity as graphic video evidence, revealed in The Age, emerged of Indonesian forces torturing villagers.

 

For the past month in West Papua, the world's biggest gold and copper mine, operated by US mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, has been racked by industrial disputes.