October 3, 2019 / 1:00 PM / 15 days ago

Indonesia says over 11,500 have fled violence-hit Papuan town

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian authorities said on Thursday more than 11,500 people have been evacuated from the town of Wamena in the easternmost province of Papua since dozens died during clashes last month in the area.

Located on the western half of the island of New Guinea and long racked by a simmering separatist insurgency, Papua encompasses Indonesia’s two easternmost provinces and has a distinct ethnic Melanesian population.

There has been a spike in protests and unrest since late August after Papuan students in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city on the island of Java, were taunted and attacked by a mob chanting racial epithets over accusations they had desecrated a national flag.

In some of the worst bloodshed in decades in Papua, 33 people died and scores were hurt during clashes in Wamena on Sept. 23.

Government offices and homes were burned down, and 250 cars and motorcycles destroyed, as indigenous Papuans and security forces clashed.

The government and some Papuan independence activists say 25 of the 33 who died there were migrants from elsewhere in the country.

Erizal, 42, a former resident of Wamena who had left, said his child and wife died during the unrest and he now felt too traumatised to consider returning to the town.

“I am in my village in Padang now, maybe I will not return back to Wamena,” he said by telephone from the Padang area on Sumatra island where he was originally from. He said his shop had also been burnt down in the unrest.

Between Sept. 23 and Oct. 2 Indonesia’s air force had flown 7,467 people out of Wamena on Hercules planes, while 4,179 people had left on commercial flights, said Harry Hikmat, an official at Indonesia’s social ministry.

Ahmad Musthofa Kamal, a spokesman for the Papuan police, said the situation in Wamane was now stable and that shops and markets were open again.

A former Dutch colony, Papua was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969, after a disputed vote of about 1,025 hand-picked tribal leaders. The result of the plebiscite was overseen and endorsed by the United Nations.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has opened the door to holding talks with separatists in Papua, a departure from the stance of previous governments and some of his cabinet ministers.

Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Frances Kerry

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