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ANIMAJUGI, Indonesia (April 30, 2001 – AP/South China Morning Post/Kabar-Irian)---Two nearly naked warriors hold a squealing pig still so their chief can fire an arrow into its heart. The beast is butchered and cooked in a steaming pit lined with ashes, hot rocks and leaves.

Ancient tribal ways still pervade life here in the jungle territory of Irian Jaya, on the western half of New Guinea.

It was one of the last places on Earth to be opened to the outside world, but modern politics are encroaching. A three-decades-old independence struggle against Indonesian rule has escalated in recent months, joining a series of ethnic conflicts that are threatening the unity of the sprawling nation.

In 1938, American explorers using a Catalina amphibious plane found the Baliem Valley, a lush patchwork of green fields, lakes and rivers hidden away by impenetrable, malaria-ridden forests and soaring mountains high in the misty interior of what was then Dutch-ruled western New Guinea.

As it was back then, the village of Animajugi remains a ring of thatched huts corralled among yams fields and rain forest.

Its headman, Jonas Mambel, was a small boy when his people literally came out of the Stone Age and made their first contact with European missionaries in 1958.

''They flew in by helicopter and looked like huge white monkeys. We ran into the hills frightened. But later we became Christians,'' he says.

The culture shock continued. Within five years, the territory went through more dramatic change when neighboring, and overwhelmingly Muslim, Indonesia annexed the western end of New Guinea and renamed it Irian Jaya.

The takeover was endorsed by the United Nations in 1969 after it canvassed about 1,000 village chiefs in a hastily arranged ballot.

Separatists argue the ballot was a sham and say Indonesia's hold on their homeland, which they call West Papua, is void. They want the United Nations to hold a new referendum, similar to that held in East Timor, which broke free of Indonesia's grip in 1999.

Such talk is dangerous in the frontier town of Wamena, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Animajugi.

Indonesian police armed with rifles, carry out wary foot patrols through the town's dusty market where women sit quietly on the roadside watching over meager piles of fruit and vegetables. Men, from the local Dani tribes, wear nothing but feathers in their hair and hollowed-out gourds that cover their penises.

The town is peaceful now. But late last year at least 30 people were killed when security forces pulled down a rebel flag and fired at pro-independence protesters.

Tribesmen with axes, machetes and arrows responded with brutal attacks on settlers who had come from other islands in Indonesia. Protests in other towns also resulted in violence.

''I heard there was a big fight with the outsiders. But I don't know anything about it. I don't know what independence is,'' says Mr. Mambel, who is unsure of his age but thinks he's about 50.

''Politics is something we don't really care about. We're happy if we can raise our pigs and feed our families,'' he says.

Irian Jaya is the biggest and potentially the wealthiest of several provinces where separatists are fighting to break free from Indonesian rule.

It has vast forests, one of the world's largest mines, operated by Louisiana-based Freeport McMoran Gold and Copper, and potentially immense deposits of oil and natural gas.

For decades, Indonesian dictator Suharto used the army to quash dissent across the nation's 17,000 ethnically diverse islands.

But his downfall in 1998 and the secession of East Timor have emboldened separatists, who have been waging a low-level guerilla war. Early in April, rebels attacked an army outpost killing four members of Indonesia's elite special forces. Others staged a daring kidnap of logging workers, including two South Koreans.

Flying from Jakarta, the bustling national capital of 11 million people, to the wilds of the Baliem Valley underscores how huge and diverse Indonesia is.

The 4,000-kilometer (2,400-mile) journey can take almost a day by plane, including a flight from the provincial coastal capital, Jayapura, 320 kilometers (192 miles) to the northeast.

As in the days of the first explorers and missionaries, flying is the only way into Wamena. Everything from the outside is flown in - gasoline, medicine, machines and cars.

Although Islam is the predominant religion in most other parts of Indonesia, Christian missionaries run the schools, medical clinics and air services. Wamena's churches are full every Sunday.

But faith in Jesus is still a newcomer and is still often mixed with animist ways dating back thousands of years.

Some villagers show off the mummified bodies of their dead chiefs and stage mock tribal fights for the few tourists who make it to the Baliem Valley. Old women still practice the gruesome custom of severing a finger when a close relative dies.

''The local people have their own religions,'' says the Reverend Mikael Takage, a Roman Catholic priest who has preached in Wamena for four years. ''They pray as Christians one day and then to their own gods the next.''

Reverend Takage says most of the region's indigenous people want independence, but few understand how to get it and what will happen if it comes.

''They know God has blessed this place with natural resources,'' he says. ''They think they can make it into their own nation.''

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