JAKARTA: Indonesian soldiers shot dead a separatist rebel in the restive province of Papua after an attack on an army helicopter that sparked an exchange of gunfire, the military said on Saturday.
Security has been heightened across the province, where a sporadic, low-level insurgency has simmered for decades.
Local military spokesman Dax Sianturi told Arab News that separatist rebels missed the helicopter, which had five people on board.
But the attack forced the helicopter, which was about to land at an airfield in the Mugi district in Nduga regency, to return to its base in Mimika regency, he said.
“The soldiers who were guarding the landing site were involved in a 15-minute exchange of gunfire,” he said, adding that there were no army casualties.
The military said the attackers are linked to the separatist Free Papua Organization, which has been behind a series of shootings targeting security forces in the region.
Last December, separatist gunmen in Nduga killed 19 construction workers who were building bridges as part of the Trans-Papua Highway, one of President Joko Widodo’s flagship infrastructure projects.
Papua police chief Paulus Waterpauw said his office had deployed 3,000 personnel to intensify patrols, including in mountainous strongholds of separatist groups.
Pro-independence leader Markus Haluk told Arab News that his group, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, had called for “recovery prayers” on Dec. 1, citing dozens of deaths from recent unrest in the region.
Mass protests and unrest between August and September led to the killing of more than 30 people and renewed calls for an independence referendum.
“We’ll be pressing ahead with fighting for our right to self-determination through a referendum for Papuan independence,” said Haluk.
Papua, the western part of the island of New Guinea, declared itself independent from Dutch colonial rule on Dec. 1, 1961.
But Indonesia officially took over the region in 1969 after a UN-backed ballot widely seen as a sham.
Jakarta keeps a tight grip on resource-rich Papua, which is one of the country’s poorest regions.