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JAYAPURA, Papua, Indonesia (July 30, 2002 – Laksamana.Net/Kabar-Irian)---A member of the Army's elite Special Forces (Kopassus) suspected of involvement in last year's murder of Papuan independence leader Theys Hiyo Eluay claims the victim died unexpectedly while being questioned by soldiers, a lawyer said Tuesday.

"Lieutenant Colonel Hartomo said that Theys died suddenly, maybe because of shock, while his subordinates were questioning him in his car," lawyer Ruhut Sitompul was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

Theys, leader of the Papua Presidium, a group seeking to negotiate independence for the resource-rich province through peaceful means, was found murdered on November 11, 2001.

The previous night he had attended a celebration at the Kopassus base commanded by Hartomo in the provincial capital, Jayapura.

The flamboyant independence leader was abducted by a group of Kopassus soldiers while on his way home and then allegedly strangled and left in his crashed car on the side of the road.

In April 2002, three Kopassus officers, including Hartomo, were arrested for their role in the murder. They are now being detained in Jakarta. They and another six Kopassus members are to be court-martialed over their alleged role in the killing and face a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail if found guilty.

The government and military headquarters have denied responsibility for the murder. Local reports say a retired general, now active in the government, ordered the killing because Theys was a threat to the military's profits from logging operations in Papua.

Sitompul denied that Hartomo was responsible for the death of Theys.

"Hartomo was not in the car and had not ordered Theys' questioning. It was the initiative of several of his subordinates," he was quoted as saying by AFP.

He said Hartomo had received reports from his subordinates that Theys was being questioned about his separatism campaign.

"Hartomo seems to think that Theys had died of shock while he was being questioned in his car," the lawyer was quoted as saying by AFP.

That explanation totally contradicts an autopsy report that indicated Theys had been strangled.

Separatists in Papua have staged a sporadic struggle for independence ever since the resource-rich territory was left by the Dutch and occupied by Indonesia in 1963.

The government this year granted the province special autonomy and a greater share of the revenue from its vast natural resources in the hope of quelling the separatist movement.

The notorious Kopassus unit has played a major role in past efforts to crush separatism in Papua, East Timor and Aceh.

The unit's reputation was further tarnished in the final years of the regime of ex-president Suharto when its officers kidnapped, tortured and allegedly killed pro-democracy activists.

Crackdown Feared

The South China Morning Post reported Tuesday that separatists fear the Papua Presidium will be declared illegal and its members arrested under a new "peace" operation ordered by the province's police chief.

Local police chief Inspector General Made Mangku Pastika announced on July 17 that "Operation Adil Matoa" would be conducted for 60 days, beginning at a date yet to be specified, to create a "peace zone" aimed at keeping Papua within Indonesia.

Papua Presidium secretary Thaha Al-Hamid said the operation will be targeting separatists and groups accused of using "human rights" as a cover for separatism, which means members of the presidium may face arrest.

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