JAKARTA: Indonesian authorities have arrested 85 people linked to weeks of deadly unrest in Papua, police said, as Jakarta accused an exiled separatist leader of stoking riots in its easternmost territory.
Tens of thousands protested across Papua – on the western half of New Guinea island – as anger over racism and fresh calls for self-rule fuelled mass demonstrations and violent clashes with security forces.
Officially, five demonstrators and a soldier were killed, but activists say the civilian death toll is higher.
Jakarta blocked internet services in Papua, making it difficult to independently verify information. The ban has been gradually lifted though remains in effect in some cities.
Foreigners have also been restricted from entering the region over what the government said were security concerns.
Indonesian police said they have arrested 85 people in Papua since the unrest broke out in mid-August and are hunting for another 20 suspects.
Authorities have arrested suspects in other parts of the country and issued an arrest warrant for a prominent Indonesian lawyer and Papuan rights defender over allegations she spread fake news about the unrest on her social media account.
Authorities also pointed a finger at Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, saying he stoked riots to draw global attention to renewed calls for an independence vote.
“The riots in Papua happened by design,” National Police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said late Monday.
Wenda, a former separatist rebel who was granted asylum in Britain years ago, earlier dismissed Jakarta’s claims as “politically motivated”.
A low-level separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in Papua, a former Dutch colony, after Jakarta took over the mineral-rich region in the 1960s. A vote to stay within the archipelago was widely viewed as rigged.
Most Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia.
Jakarta has long ruled out talk of Papuan independence, a position it has repeated in recent weeks.
In a meeting with traditional Papuan leaders Tuesday in Jakarta, President Joko Widodo pledged to give government jobs to 1,000 newly graduated Papuan students and to consider building a presidential palace in the region – the archipelago has six palaces including in the capital and holiday island Bali.
A firestorm of protests broke across Papua and other parts of the Southeast Asian nation after the arrest and teargassing of dozens of Papuan students, who were also racially abused, in Indonesia’s second-biggest city Surabaya.