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By Chris McCall

JAKARTA, Indonesia (January 10, 2000 – Reuters/Irian News)---A top separatist leader said Indonesia's eastern Irian Jaya province could be independent by 2003, but added that freedom may come at a bloody price, as it did in East Timor.

Thom Beanal told Reuters that separatists plan a major congress later this year to map out a strategy for independence, which they want to achieve through dialogue with Jakarta.

"I want freedom," Beanal said. "I don't want anything from Indonesia. I just want Indonesia to give us independence. Papuan people want independence through dialogue."

But Beanal said he feared elements within the Indonesian military would try to thwart any move towards separation as they did in East Timor, where thousands are believed to have been killed after voting for independence last August.

He warned that ethnic Javanese migrants, who many Papuans regard as allies of the Javanese-dominated military, would be particularly vulnerable.

"I am a bit scared," he said. "If the military is hard, the people will be hard. But they will not kill the military. They will kill Javanese migrants because they don't have weapons."

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Javanese have gone to Irian Jaya -- many under a government-backed plan -- since it joined Indonesia under a controversial U.N. deal in 1963.

Beanal believes independence will come by 2003.

Congress Leader To Coordinate Separatist Movement

The congress, still in the planning stage, should take place later this year in the provincial capital Jayapura, he said.

"We want a meeting to choose a leader or several leaders," said Beanal. "We want to set up an organization so there is a clear program, a clear strategy. At the moment we are going around and around in circles because no one has made a clear strategy. But all the Papuan people say they don't like Indonesia."

Any leader chosen by the congress would become the front-runner to lead an independent West Papua state.

Beanal, 52, is likely to be a strong candidate. Leader of the Amungme people, he has played a key role in getting a better deal for them from the giant and profitable copper and gold mine operated by PT Freeport Indonesia on Amungme lands.

Known for his straight talking, he was chosen last year as head of a so-called "Team 100" of traditional leaders who have been lobbying Jakarta for independence. There is huge support for independence in Irian Jaya, but so far it has been uncoordinated.

He said the congress would have to involve guerrillas from the rebel Free Papua Movement (OPM) and their leaders in exile, as well as intellectuals and women's groups.

Indonesia's Wahid Supports Congress, But Not Independence

The idea was mentioned to President Abdurrahman Wahid when he visited the province to mark the millennium. Beanal said that Wahid gave his approval.

During that visit Wahid made a bid to redress past abuses. He proposed renaming the province with the indigenous name Papua and apologized for past human rights abuses by Indonesia's security forces. But Wahid warned that any attempts to break away from Indonesia would not be tolerated.

His comments angered many Papuans. Even Papuan soldiers and police, who officially have sworn allegiance to Jakarta, quietly support independence, Beanal said.

"What is the meaning of sorry?" he asked. "It is Indonesians who made a country within a country. We are Papuans and already have a country."

Wahid's government has offered the province wide-ranging autonomy, which many Papuan leaders say is not enough.

They argue that Dutch colonialists granted the region independence in 1961, a position that Jakarta rejects. Jakarta brought massive diplomatic pressure to bear and prepared to invade, forcing the Dutch to cede the area to Indonesia.

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