Indonesia police vow to hunt down separatists blamed for Papua unrest

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian police on Thursday vowed to hunt down separatists blamed for violent protests in the region of Papua, as the government partially lifted an internet blackout imposed in the easternmost area after three weeks.

A general view of residential area near Jayapura port in Jayapura, Papua, September 2, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Zabur Karuru/ via REUTERS

The region has suffered its most serious civil unrest in years since mid-August over perceived racial and ethnic discrimination. Some protesters have also demanded an independence referendum, something the government has ruled out.

About 6,000 police and military personnel have been flown in to Papua, reinforcing a heavy military presence in a region that has endured decades of mostly low-level separatist conflict.

“What’s happening in Papua now and abroad was designed by a group ... which I will hunt down,” national police chief Tito Karnavian told a news conference from the Papuan provincial capital of Jayapura.

He said police had identified the people behind the unrest, accusing separatist leader Benny Wenda of orchestrating the unrest ahead of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting that starts on Sept. 9 to get Papua onto the agenda “at the expense of the people”.

Police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo told media on Wednesday that diplomatic channels would be used to hold Wenda accountable. A spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry declined to comment.

Wenda, who has political asylum in Britain, was quoted in media as saying the Indonesian government should focus on resolving the Papuan issue rather than making accusations against him.

Papua and West Papua provinces, the resource-rich western part of the island of New Guinea, were a Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.

The latest protests followed racist slurs against Papuan students, whose dormitory was tear gassed during their detention in the city of Surabaya on Java island on Aug. 17, Indonesia’s Independence Day, for allegedly desecrating a national flag.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s communications ministry said in a statement it had ended a shutdown of the internet and data access for most parts of Papua, though it would continue to monitor the situation in some areas.

The decision was taken after the online flow of “hoax information” had declined, the ministry said in a statement.

The internet restrictions continued in places where protesters torched buildings, such as the cities of Jayapura and Manokwari, as well as some rural towns like Deiyai, where civilians were killed during a clash between security forces and protesters last week.

Authorities and activists have given different accounts on the incident and the internet blackout has made verifying information difficult.

Dozens of people have been arrested across Papua and West Papua provinces for damaging property, police said.

In Jakarta, several Papuan students have been arrested and charged with treason after joining protests calling for an independence vote, at which separatist symbols were displayed.

Police have also named a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, Veronica Koman, a suspect in connection with her Twitter posts about the unrest.

Reporting by Jakarta bureau; Editing by Ed Davies and Michael Perry