U.S. mining company Freeport has ordered its 20,000 employees in Indonesia to avoid the only road to the world's largest gold mine, following several days of deadly ambushes by mysterious gunmen.
The wave of attacks that began Saturday marked the worst violence to hit Freeport's operations in Indonesia's restive Papua province since the murder of three teachers, including two Americans, in August 2002. At least 12 people have been killed or wounded in the attacks along the 40-mile road from Grasberg to the mountain mining town of Timika.
Mindo Pangaribuan, a spokesman for the Indonesian subsidiary of Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc., said the road was declared off limits to Freeport workers because of "security reasons."
It was unclear how long the travel ban would last, but the company said it would not affect its business operations.
Police wounded by gunfire
On Wednesday, two police officers were wounded by gunfire on the road, one of them critically, raising the number of wounded to nine, police officials said. Since Saturday, attackers have shot and killed a 29-year-old Australian and a Freeport security guard, while a policeman fell to his death in a ravine as he sought cover.
Investigators said they still do not know who is behind the shooting spree, but that the ammunition is standard military and police issue. A manhunt for the perpetrators in the dense jungle will be expanded into a special forces operation, National Police spokesman Insp. Gen. Sulistyo told the Antara state news agency.
Authorities initially blamed the ambushes on Papuan separatists with the Free Papua Movement, OPM, who have waged a low-level insurgency for 40 years. But official statements now refer to "an armed group" of professional marksmen.
Several analysts have suggested that the violence is likely the result of a long-standing rivalry between paramilitary police units and soldiers competing for control of illegal multimillion-dollar protection and gold mining businesses around Freeport.
George Junus Aditjondro, an author on rebellions in Indonesia and a Papua specialist, said the military is always trying expose how "incompetent the police are in defending or guarding foreign businesses." The attacks "could be an outburst of that rivalry."
Papuan affairs specialist at the Australian National University, Christopher Ballard, said his research on the area indicates that the "vast majority of security force casualties were at the hands of other security forces."
'Rough elements' in the military
Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono asked people to refrain from speculating on police rivalry in comments to the Jakarta Foreign Correspondent's Club Wednesday. But he noted that "rouge elements" in the military might have a hand in the unrest.
"My own suspicion is there are criminal groups from within and outside Papua who have seen this as a lucrative business and it may be a battle over access," he said, estimating that illegal gold mining at the edges of Freeport's mining complex could earn a miner up to $3,500 per month — more than three times a minimum wage salary in Indonesia.
Papua, a desperately poor mountain province, lies some 2,100 miles east of the capital, Jakarta. Since Arizona-based Freeport opened its operations under the U.S.-backed Suharto dictatorship various opponents have targeted its activities.
The province, known as West Papua during Indonesia's Dutch colonization, was gradually transferred to Indonesian rule in the 1960s after a stage-managed vote by community leaders. A highly militarized zone, it is off limits to foreign journalists.
Many local activists are resentful because Freeport earns billions of dollars in profit from Papua's natural resources while the people remain overwhelmingly poor.