Police and rock throwing demonstrators clashed during a protest against the American mining company, Freeport-McMoRan, today leaving three policemen and one Air Force officer dead in the remote province of Papua, witnesses and officials said.
Indonesia's chief of police, General Sutanto, said tonight the four men were killed with stones.
More than 20 other people, many of them police officers, were being treated in two hospitals in the provincial capital, Jayapura, for wounds caused by stones and arrows, according to Alberth Rumbekwan, a lawyer and member of the Papua National Commission for Human Rights.
Mr. Rumbekwan said the three dead policemen belonged to the branch of the police known as Brimob, which is feared by many Indonesians for its aggressive tactics and poor human rights record.
The demonstration outside the university in Jayapura turned violent as several hundred students demanded that Freeport, which owns a huge gold and copper
mine in the impoverished province, close its operations.
The students, many of whom support independence for Papua, also demanded that the Indonesian Army and police withdraw from the province.
The army and the police in Papua, most of whom come from outside the province, are widely viewed as an occupying force, and the Freeport mine is protected by these forces.
Protests against the mine have escalated since last month, when local people who live near the mine were prevented by the police from panning the mine's waste for gold.
The local protests came as parliamentarians in the country's capital, Jakarta, have demanded that Freeport pay higher taxes as a way of compensating Indonesia for the right to mine what the company calls the world's largest deposit of gold.
The local villagers have long been allowed by the Indonesian army — serving as the mine's security force — to retrieve lucrative pieces of gold from the waste that is dumped by the mine directly into the Aghawagon River.
But last month, for reasons that remain unclear, security forces around the mine stopped what is known as "illegal mining." Immediately, the villagers blocked roads at the mine and the police fired at demonstrators with rubber bullets, according to accounts from people in the nearby town of Timika. Mine operations were closed for three days last month.
Freeport, a New Orleans-based company that has been operating the gold and copper mine since the early 1970's, has been the target of unrest before, in particular in 1996 when antimine sentiment erupted in rioting that closed down operations for three days.
Protests against the mine picked up pace this week, with today's clash proving the deadliest.
A spokesman for the Indonesian police, Brig. Gen. Anton Bahrul Alam, said the demonstrators were armed with bows and arrows and Molotov cocktails. He said the three policemen were killed with "traditional big knives."
An account of today's violence e-mailed to journalists this evening by an Australian supporter of Papuan independence, said Brimob police forces tried to push the demonstrators in Jayapura off the road with tear gas, and then opened fire.
"The demonstrators response to this shooting was to attack the Brimob police," according to the account by Matthew Jamieson of Byron Bay in Australia, who wrote that he was in touch today with students and residents of Jayapura.
The New York Times reported in December that Freeport had granted far greater financial support to the Indonesian army and the police than it had publicly reported, in some cases giving individual commanders tens of thousands of dollars — and in one case up to $150,000.
The United States Justice Department has said it is investigating whether these payments made by Freeport to individual Indonesian soldiers and military units from 1998 to 2004 were in breach of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Securities and Exchange Commission, too, told the New York City Pension fund, a major investor in Freeport, that it is investigating whether the company failed to fully disclose the payments to its shareholders.
Foreign journalists are banned by the Indonesian government from visiting Papua without special permission, which is rarely granted.
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