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Indonesian police said today that gunmen have occupied two villages in easternmost Papua province near a US-owned gold and copper mine in a possible escalation of a separatist conflict in the region. Papua police chief Boy Rafli Amar said about 1,300 people have been prevented from leaving the villages of Kimberly and Banti in the past two days by a group that includes about 25 armed men. Indonesia restricts foreign journalists from reporting in the provinces of Papua and West Papua and the police account of events is unlikely to be the complete picture. Amar said the gunmen are an "armed criminal group," a description Indonesian police often use when referring to armed Papuan separatists. "Their numbers are quite big, nearly 100 with some 25 armed men, while the others using traditional weapons such machetes, arrows and spears," he said. Three days of clashes between Indonesian police and gunmen last month near the giant Grasberg mine killed one officer and wounded six others. The mine owned by Phoenix, Arizona-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc is a source of tension in the region due to environmental damage and indigenous Papuans' resentment at profits from local resources being sent abroad. A low-level insurgency for independence has simmered in Papua since it was transferred from Dutch to Indonesian rule in 1963. The region, which makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 following a UN-sponsored ballot of tribal leaders that has since been dismissed as a sham. Sebby Sambon, a spokesman for a Papuan separatist group known as TPN, denied villagers were being prevented from leaving.
He said the separatists are freedom fighters. Amar said police supported by the army were trying to open communication with the gunmen using the local government as an intermediary.
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