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By Craig Skehan Foreign Affairs Correspondent

SYDNEY, Australia (July 20, 2001 – Sydney Morning Herald/Kabar-Irian)---Beatings, arrests and the burning of villages had caused thousands of people to flee from their homes in the far west of Irian Jaya province, a local human rights organization said yesterday.

A forum being held in the west Irian Jaya town of Manokwari has heard first-hand accounts of the abuses, according to Mr. John Rumbiak, who heads the Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy.

He said witnesses who had fled the area were describing worsening rights violations and an internal refugee movement to mountain camps where there are food shortages and illnesses.

Mr. Rumbiak said there had been more arrests over the past few days. He also said a body believed to be that of a young man arrested last month had been found dumped in a forest.

Mr. Rumbiak said that on Wednesday plain-clothes police intelligence officers had taken notes while visiting the human rights forum, which is being held at Manokwari's Arfak Hotel.

At about midday yesterday, three truckloads of police had arrived and taken up positions around the forum venue.

"They came into the room where we are meeting," Mr. Rumbiak told the Herald by telephone. "It is very intimidating and we don't know what is going to happen. We told them that they have no right to be here."

Mr. Rumbiak said his group had organized the forum because church and human rights organizations had been stopped by police from visiting villages across an area of the province known because of its shape as the bird's head.

The operation, named "Comb and Destroy," started after the killing on June 13 of five police and a civilian by an unidentified group of armed men.

Jakarta had blamed secessionist militants.

Mr. Rumbiak said human rights violations during the security operation were being documented through the recording of witness statements.

A substantial number of people had been arrested and were being held and soldiers had been burning houses, including those of 80 families in Senderawoi village, which was now deserted. Other villages and centers affected by the crackdown included Nabire, Ransiki and Kaimana.

"I think there are now more than a thousand people living in the mountains, and they are too afraid to come down," Mr. Rumbiak said.

"Thousands more have shifted here to Manokwari or gone to Jayapura."

Mr. Rumbiak called for independent investigators to be allowed into areas where abuses were continuing.

The Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown said yesterday he had received a series of representations this week and was deeply concerned about what was becoming a humanitarian crisis.

A spokesman for the Foreign Minister, Mr. Downer, said last night the allegations had been referred to Australia's embassy in Jakarta.

"Australia and the international community would be outraged if there were to be a reversion to the type of human rights violations in Irian Jaya which took place in East Timor in the past," he said.

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