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JAKARTA, Indonesia (Irian News/Christian Science Monitor) - For more than a month, the Indonesian military's Special Forces Command have been the key suspects in a mine ambush that killed two Americans and one Indonesian.

The August attack occurred on a lonely mountain road in the province of Papua, in the shadow of the world's largest copper and gold mine - owned by the Louisiana-based Freeport McMoRan. The victims: teachers at a Freeport-run school.

However, US and Indonesian investigators say the politically sensitive investigation has stalled. They've uncovered a trail leading back to Kopassus, as the Special Forces are known, and can go no further.

"We don't have the authority to question soldiers,'' says Brigadier General Raziman Tarigan, the deputy police chief for Papua. "It is in the military’s hands."

The world's largest Muslim country has been a focus of the US war on terror since the Al Qaeda-linked October bombing of a nightclub on Bali. The mine attack came as the Bush administration was pushing to resume military relations with Indonesia, severed three years ago. Diplomats now warn that the Freeport investigation looms as the biggest obstacle to new ties and could have grave consequences for military relations between the US and Indonesia.

"Very serious questions are going to have to be answered,'' says a US official. "Until there is a full, transparent investigation of what happened at Freeport, resuming military ties would be extremely difficult."

Kopassus has run so-called black operations for more than 20 years, particularly in conflict areas like Papua, Aceh, and the former province of East Timor, usually without any civilian oversight.

The US broke military relations with Indonesia in 1999, largely because of rampant human-rights abuses - including the military's alleged use of Kopassus operatives to create militias in East Timor that murdered and tortured hundreds of civilians after they voted for independence, according to an Indonesian government investigation.

"[The Freeport] incident must not be seen in isolation: It's part of a troubling pattern of abuse that, if anything, is on the rise," says a Western diplomat in Jakarta.

History of abuse While Indonesian police have implicated Kopassus in a string of human-rights crimes - from the disappearance and torture of democracy activists in 1998 to the 2001 assassination of Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay - efforts to prosecute soldiers largely have been dismissed as a whitewash by foreign governments.

The military and Kopassus have also been involved in previous operations against Freeport. Freeport executives blamed the military for a 1996 riot near the mine, a charge bolstered by comments of former Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono to a foreign academic in 2000. He said that elements in the military were seeking to underscore their importance by frightening the US firm.

The Indonesian military often demands protection money from big businesses to fund its operations - particularly mining and oil and gas companies, according to executives at four foreign firms in Indonesia.

After the 1996 riot, Freeport built a $35-million base for the military. Similarly, Indonesian police and Western diplomats say, extortion was a probable motive for the August attack.

Freeport makes payments of more than $10 million a year to the Indonesian military, but has been shifting resources to the police since the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto - himself a former general - in 1998.

Freeport employees say that in the past year local commanders have complained that their payments were too low. Freeport has also been making payments to Papuan groups with ties to the independence movement, angering the military.

Lots of leads, little commitment Under Indonesian law, and the police handed responsibility for investigating the case to the military more than a month ago. Since then, Mr. Raziman says, the military has shown few signs of commitment to following the trail to Kopassus.

"It's a pity for the police, but the law gives the military the right to investigate and prosecute its own."

In particular, he says, military investigators have appeared uninterested in the testimony of Deky Murib, a Papuan native who worked as a porter and assistant to Kopassus field teams. Mr. Murib told the Indonesian police and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in September that he helped 11 Kopassus members prepare for the attack.

Diplomats also say the US has been passed radio intercepts that appear to include discussions among Indonesian soldiers about "operations" against Freeport.

Western diplomats say that could now leave the FBI, which was getting full cooperation from the Indonesian police, out in the cold. A preliminary FBI report, conducted here and in Australia - where survivors of the attack went for medical care - also found that Kopassus was the likely culprit in the attack, according to a source who has seen the report.

But that information has not yet been released to Congress. The FBI has been planning a return to Timika, the town that serves as the base for the Freeport mine, for a fuller investigation. But the military now has veto power, and is unlikely to provide the access investigators will need.

That suspicion increased Monday when Colonel M.R. Saragih announced that the 10- man military team investigating the Freeport killings had exonerated the military. "These [accusations] have been spread to undermine the military," he said.

The work of rebels? "The evidence so far shows all the hallmarks of a military operation,'' says John Rumbiak, who runs the Papuan human rights group Elsham. Elsham has been one of the leading critics of the military's role in Papua, and has been at the forefront of the investigation into the attack at Freeport.

On Oct. 11, the Elsham office in Jakarta was trashed by a group of men with military haircuts, according to Alberth Rumbekwan, Elsham's Jakarta representative. Elsham documentation and computer diskettes were carried away by the men. "We think they were military, but we can't prove it,'' he says.

The office of the Indonesian military spokesman didn't return phone calls or respond to a fax requesting comment on allegations that the military was involved in the Freeport attack. Major General Sriyanto, the Kopassus commander, denied the allegations in a brief interview with Indonesian reporters two weeks ago. "I very, very much trust that my men are not involved,'' he said.

Papua military commander Major General Mahidin Simbolon has blamed the separatist Free Papua Organization (OPM) for the murders. Most Papuans, who are ethnically and culturally distinct from Indonesia's dominant Javanese culture, support independence. A small band of rebels lives in the highlands near the Freeport mine.

Yet foreign investigators point to inconsistent statements made by the military. For instance, the day after the Aug. 31 attack, the military produced the body of Danianus Waker, a Papuan man they said was a rebel who participated in the Freeport attack, and claimed had been killed in a shootout near the road where the killings took place. But an Indonesian police autopsy found that Mr. Waker died at least 24 hours before the military claimed he died. He was also found to have suffered from a condition that would have made it unlikely he could have participated in the long, dangerous hike to the site of the attack.

The narrow road where the Freeport employees were killed twists back treacherously for about 35 miles from Freeport's operational base in the swampy lowlands to its mill at 9,000 feet. Indonesian garrisons control all vehicle access on the road.

The only other way to get onto the road is to scramble along difficult mountain paths for miles. The teachers were part of a two-car convoy and had spent the day visiting the mill and were returning to a Freeport community in the lowlands.

The attack involved far more firepower than the OPM has ever been known to use. About 15 men armed with Indonesian military standard issue M-16 and SS-1 assault rifles riddled the lead car with over 400 rounds. Eleven other Freeport employees were injured.

While the OPM has occasionally stolen rifles from the Indonesian military, they are largely armed with bows and arrows and are unlikely to have wasted so much hard-to-get ammunition.

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