Police aim to free Papua airstrip from OPM control

Police aim to free Papua airstrip from OPM control

The Jakarta Post
Dicky Christanto

Police said Friday they are pursuing peaceful means to retake a remote jungle airstrip that was seized by armed separatist rebels in Papua province two weeks ago.

A group of Free Papua Organization (OPM) members along with local villagers armed with tradi-tional weapons, including bows and arrows, as well as automatic weapons, have blockaded the airstrip in Kasepo, Memberamo, about 500 kilometers from the Papua provincial capital of Jayapura, since mid May.

The group has taken control of the airstrip and raised the outlawed Bintang Kejor (Papuan Morning Star flag).

National Police spokesman Insp. Gen. Abubakar Nataprawira confirmed Friday that the Kasepo airport was still under the occupation of OPM separatists.

He said police in Papua were under intensive negotiations with OPM leaders.

The negotiations were being conducted in order to avoid armed clashes with a group of Papuan villagers who were at the airport along with the separatists, Abubakar said.

He said the police believed the OPM members was using young villagers as "human shields" to take over the small airport.

"There are only several OPM members in the field right now, while the remaining people there are just those new recruits who basically know nothing about the OPM's hidden agenda.

"Maybe it would be different and much easier if there ware only these separatists in the field, we could just aim and shoot them and then free the airport," he told a press conference at the National Police headquarters.

Around 150 youngsters were reported to have joined an OPM faction currently under the leadership of Deky Imbiri and Alex Wakabori in occupying the airport, which is located on the banks of the huge Memberamo lake.

Most of the youths were armed with bows and arrows but a few were equipped with automatic machine guns.

Abubakar said the ongoing negotiations involved two groups of police officers - one comprising personnel from a special squad with the Mobile Brigade (Brimod) from Papua and Makassar, South Sulawesi, and a special antiterror detachment from force from Jakarta.

"We hope that no Papuans fall victim to this operation, thus we prefer to take more time to negotiate and pursue peaceful talks, instead of using police action," he said.

A noted criminologist from the Indonesia University, Adrianus Meliala, said the police's decision to negotiate was on the "right track".

"The global trend is for police or any other authorities to prioritize the use of soft skills such as hostage negotiation techniques rather than to combat separatists or perpetrators directly," he said.

But, he added, if the police find the pro-separatist group insists on occupying the airstrip, then there is no other way than to take firm action to stop them from continuing their action.

"But off course it all depends on how good the police are at negotiating with the separatists. These negotiators must work hard to win the separatist's trust so this conflict can be settled once and for all," he said.

Local police chiefs warned the OPM leaders to end the blockade or face the consequences from the security personnel.

The OPM has been waging a low-level insurgency in Papua since the early 1960s.