Raging soldiers put Papua in red alert

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Wed, 04/29/2009 10:42 PM | National
The Jayapura, Papua army base erupted with rage Wednesday as Battalion 751 Sentani soldiers violently protested what they called the theft of their money.

The rioting broke out during the commemoration of West Papua ‘s integration into Indonesia . The soldiers were demanding that the battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Labok Sihotang, be held responsible for his actions.

The soldiers questioned why their commander required them to provide funds for the burial of their fellow soldier, Private Joko, in his hometown in Nabire, Papua. The soldiers felt that the armu should have paid for sending Joko’s body home for burial, not them.

Cahyono, a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in Papua who spoke with one of the eyewitnesses, said that the protest turned violent at around 2 p.m Papua time. The solders went on a rampage and even started hunted down journalists covering the rioting.

Chayono quoted Antara reporter, Oka Bharata, as saying that he and three other journalists had been accosted by soldiers while they were eating at a food vendor’s stall near the army compound.

The angry soldiers ransacked the reporters’ belongings and confiscated avideo camera used to film the riot.

He said that the journalists had then escaped to a residential area before changing their clothing and hiding at the local police station.

The journalists were Antara reporter Oka Bharata, Local newspaper reporter Anang, local TV reporter Zul, and a Reuters’s reporter, he said.

Cahyono added that said that the soldiers continued their rampage blockading main roads and searching the areas for other journalists who might have taped the incident.

There were no reports of any deaths or people going missing during the incident. The number of soldiers involved in the incident also remains uncertain. Various media reports have claimed that there were between 100 and 1,000 soldiers involved in the rioting.

Brigadier General Christian Zebua, the army’s spokesman, confirmed the cause of the incident but played down the extent of the rioting.

“It is true that Battalion Commander Labok Sihotang’s actions sparked the discontent of the soldiers which led to the problem and there were gun shots, but the rioting did not reached the streets. It stayed in the compound,” he said.

He said that the commander had charged other soldiers for the sending home and burial fee of the deceased Private Joko to Nabire, Papua. The cost was around Rp 90 million (US$8,370).

“It took the soldiers a couple of days to work themselves up over the commander’s decision to make them pay. The commander had thought that every one was okay with the decision, but apparently the soldiers questioned it afterwards. They accused the commander of swindling their money,” Brigadier General Christian Zebua said.

He added that the soldiers had started to protest after a morning ceremony. When the protest began to escalate into violence, the commander fled. His deputy, who failed to get away, suffered head wounds.

Christian did not explain how many soldiers had been involved. “Just a group of soldiers,” he said.

“Major General Ahmad Yani Nasution has spoken to the soldiers and things are now under control,” he said. (fmb)

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