Ambush near gold mine; 2 dead

JAKARTA: Gunmen opened fire Wednesday on buses carrying employees of U.S. mining company Freeport in Indonesia's impoverished Papua province, killing two people in the latest attack on the world's largest gold mine, witnesses and the state news agency said.

The state news agency Antara reported two dead, but it did not identify the victims or say if they were shot.

An Associated Press reporter was told by a policeman who witnessed the shooting that a police vehicle escorting the convoy flipped. He declined to be named because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Several injured officers were taken to a local clinic, the AP reporter said, one of them in critical condition. Two body bags were later seen being removed. The police officer did not think any Freeport employees had been hurt.

Since July 11, at least a dozen people have been killed or wounded in ambushes along a road leading to the mine, prompting a massive security operation in the militarized zone that is off limits to foreign journalists.

Freeport declined comment, referring inquiries to police who did not return phone calls.

Arizona-based Freeport has been targeted with arson, roadside bombs and blockades since production began in the 1970s during the U.S.-backed Suharto dictatorship.

Freeport CEO Richard Adkerson said Tuesday that 15 arrests had been made in connection with the shootings in which a Freeport guard, an Australian mining expert and a policeman died. He said six people had been charged, including a man who apparently acknowledged being a sniper.

"We have been assured from the highest levels of government in Indonesia they are committed to provide safety for our people and for our operations," Adkerson said in a conference call detailing their latest earnings.

Freeport staff were ordered to stop traveling the road last week, and hundreds have been unable to return to work. The buses were turned back when the firing began, Antara reported.

A PT Freeport spokesman in Indonesia, Mindo Pangaribuan, said early Wednesday morning that "secure transportations have been arranged to transport personnel and deliver supplies."

Papua is home to a four-decade-old, low-level insurgency against the government, and members of the Free Papua Movement — who see Freeport as a symbol of outside rule — were initially blamed by authorities for the latest violence.

Some analysts, however, believe the shootings resulted from a rivalry between the police and military over multimillion dollar illegal gold mining or protection businesses at the mine. Others blame criminal gangs.

The shootings were the worst violence at Freeport since the killing of three schoolteachers, including two Americans, in August 2002 that sparked widespread protests by locals who feel they are not benefiting from the depletion of Papua's natural resources.

Freeport employs about 20,000 people in Papua, where it has extracted billions of dollars worth of gold and copper and still has some of the largest reserves in the world. Freeport is one of the top taxpayers to the Indonesian government, which is also a minority stake holder.

Papua, a desperately poor mountain province, lies on the western half of New Guinea island, some 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) east of the capital, Jakarta.