Indonesian security forces stormed a pro-independence assembly in eastern Papua province Wednesday, firing tear gas and warning shots, and rounding up hundreds, witnesses and reports said.
Hundreds of paramilitary police and army troops surrounded the estimated 5,000 participants at the Papuan Congress, held at an open field in Abepura outside the provincial capital Jayapura, witnesses said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, as police dispersed a diverse crowd which included youths and human rights activists as well as tribal and religious leaders.
“They got in and started firing tear gas, trampling and beating up the crowd with their bare fists and rifle butts until they were black and blue,” rights activist Paskalis Tonggap told AFP.
Another witness, Markus Haluk, a leader of a Papuan youth organisation, said that police and troops had surrounded the congress with anti-riot trucks since morning and fired warning shots.
The participants were attending the Third Papuan Congress, a pro-democracy gathering for the remote eastern region’s indigenous Melanesian majority, last held in May 2000.
For decades, ethnic Papuans have rejected the region’s special autonomy within Indonesia and demanded a referendum on self-determination for Papua’s estimated 3.6 million population.
“They committed violations, such as raising the Morning Star flag. We fired warning shots to disperse them,” Papuan police spokesman Wachyono told reporters.
Under Indonesian law, even peaceful political acts such as displaying the Morning Star flag of Papuan independence are punishable by lengthy prison terms. The region is off limits to foreign journalists and rights workers.
“We arrested several perpetrators who were the brains behind the congress,” Wachyono said, adding that there were no casualties in the crackdown.
The independent MetroTV showed paramilitary police beating the crowd with batons and bare fists, as military vehicles surrounded the area. It said hundreds were rounded up and packed into military trucks as they were taken for questioning.
The region’s special autonomy status, introduced in 2001 after the fall of former president Suharto’s military dictatorship, has seen powers including control of most tax revenue from natural resources devolved to the provincial government.
However many Papuans say it has failed to improve their rights and activists accuse the Indonesian military of acting with brutal impunity against the Melanesian population.