JAYAPURA: Indonesian authorities and armed separatists were locked in a tense standoff near a huge US-owned mine in restive eastern Papua province Friday, with both sides blaming each other for what police claimed was a hostage crisis.
Some 700 heavily armed Indonesian military personnel encircled two villages near US firm Freeport-McMoRan's gold and copper mine, where they claimed an armed separatist group was keeping 1,300 residents against their will.
Villagers have been prevented from entering or leaving their small communities for two days, but have so far not been harmed, authorities said earlier Friday.
"These people are from a criminal group that commit violence and intimidation -- what they want is war," local police chief Victor Dean Macbon told AFP.
"For now we are prioritising pre-emptive and preventive measures. We still have not forced our way in because we don't want the villagers victimised," he added.
The separatists, part of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), have been fighting a long-running insurgency marked by periodic bouts of violence.
Backers of the group and an official at Indonesia's human rights body said the gunmen were not holding locals hostage but rather, protecting residents from the police and military.
The villages are in an area where there have been a string of recent shootings, including one last month that left a policeman dead.
Natalius Pigai, an official with the National Human Rights Commission, said the villagers feared the military and suggested it was waging a public relations campaign to portray the separatists as criminals.
"People are terrified, that's why (the Free Papua group) are standing guard...so the military cannot enter," he said, adding that many of the gunmen had family members in the villages.
"I assure you there is no hostage situation. It is impossible (they) would hold their own relatives hostage."
The area around the giant Grasberg mine is a hub for illegal gold mining and access has traditionally been run by the police mobile brigade (Brimob), army and a faction of the OPM based in Timika.
Control over gold-panning operations in the area was the backdrop to the current dispute, a security source said.
“The current action isn't hostage-taking, it’s merely preventing panners from getting to their area of work from which the local Brimob derives a large profit,” the source said, referring to the gunmen's alleged motives.
A Papua police force spokesman said the group was trying to disrupt activities at the nearby mine, but Freeport said it had not received any demands from the group and its operations were unaffected.
The region is off limits to foreign journalists without special permission, making the accounts difficult to verify.
Papua has faced a low-level insurgency since it was annexed by Indonesia in the late sixties, with Freeport's mine frequently a flashpoint in the struggle for independence and a bigger share of the region's rich resources.
Authorities said Friday they have been communicating with local religious and community leaders in a bid to end the standoff.
However, Indonesia's top military chief Gatot Nurmantyo warned that the military was ready to end the crisis in a "hard" way if negotiations fail.