Hundreds of Papuans hide in the woods after the death of Indonesian army officer

Hundreds of villagers in Mamberamo Raya in Papua have fled into the woods to live as they fear the Indonesian Military (TNI) will blame them for the death of an officer last year, a regional lawmaker said on Thursday.

A member of the Papuan House of Representatives (DPRP) Tan Wei Long said that at least 120 families from three villages -- Namunaweja, Anggreso and Kasonaweja all in Mamberamo Raya regency -- had fled into the forest in early December. The villagers were afraid of being arrested after the murder of Maj. John De Fretes by a group of people suspected of being part of an armed group in Namunaweja village in Mamberamo Tengah subdistrict on Nov. 30, 2015.

"They are afraid of being arrested for involvement in the criminal act. It [the murder] was carried out by rogue individuals, but they are scared of being dragged into the case so they ran away into the woods," he said in Jayapura on Thursday.

During the DPRP's recess, Tan visited Memberamo Raya to meet with local officials, religious and community leaders as well as local security officers to discuss ways to persuade the 120 families to return to their village.

"All parties have agreed to use the persuasive approach with the people hiding in the forest," he said.

Separately, Papua's Indonesian Christian Church's (GKI) Rev. Albert Yoku urged the local government and security officers to find a solution soon considering that the villagers had been living in rough conditions in the forest for more than a month.

"The forest in Mamberamo Raya is not suitable for humans to live in. There are many leeches and not much food in the forest. They could starve," he said.

Yoku also urged that a persuasive approach be used to convince the villagers to return to their homes. He said that if the government did not take immediate action, it would cause other problems such as health issues and the children skipping school.

He suggested that the authorities search the forest carefully as the villagers were spread out in several locations in the forest.

Maj. John was shot dead by an armed group in late November after he visited Namunaweja upon hearing that a military wing of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM) led by Cosmos Makabori had approached local villagers. He was accompanied by subordinates Lance Corp. Affan and Lance Corp. Simon Sopacua to meet with the villagers. However, as they arrived in Namunaweja, they were suddenly attacked by a group of people. John, who was also a local pastor, was tortured and shot with his own pistol by a member of the group while the two officers managed to escape.

Police have not identified the perpetrator.

After his death, the TNI promoted him to lieutenant colonel and covered the education costs of two of his children.

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