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Indonesian president 'willing to talk to Papuan rebels'

Widodo U-turn on dialogue met with caution by separatist leaders in restive region following recent riots

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Indonesian president 'willing to talk to Papuan rebels'

A man looks at the ruins of a Catholic school building in Wamena in Papua province after it was destroyed during riots on Sept. 23 that killed 33 people. (Photo supplied)

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo says he is willing to hold talks with separatist groups in the restive Papua region in what appears to be a climbdown on the government’s previous stance of not talking to rebels.

The move follows recent violence which killed more than 30 people and forced thousands to flee their homes.

President Widodo said he would meet with any parties, even those seeking an independence referendum.

“I will meet anyone who wants to meet me,” Widodo said on Oct. 2 in response to public calls for dialogue with pro-independence groups, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and the National Committee of West Papua (KNPB).

Vice President Muhammad Jusuf Kalla said earlier on Oct. 1 that the government would evaluate its approach to Papua, which had focused on building up infrastructure and the economy at the expense of people's development.

Kalla said there is a need for a cultural approach to know the hopes and anxieties of the Papuan people.

The development follows bloody riots on Sept. 23 in Wamena in Jayawijaya district which killed 33 people, injured hundreds — mostly non-native Papuans — while about 10,000 others fled to other cities.

The rioting erupted when high school students staged a protest against a teacher in the city who allegedly called Papuan students “monkeys” several days earlier. Clashes with police led to a mob going on the rampage. Many public buildings and homes were burned.

Widodo blamed armed criminal groups for the violence, a claim dismissed by activists.

His statement, saying he was willing to talk to separatists, drew a cautious response from Papuan leaders.

Benny Wenda, chairman of the ULMWP, said his group could only meet the Indonesian government if all security forces were withdrawn from Papua.

"It is impossible to meet if there is still a threat to the fate of Papuans," Papua news portal quoted Wenda as saying.

He said his group would seek an independence referendum at any such talks.

Victor Yeimo, a KNPB spokesman, said any talks would have to be mediated by another country or foreign body such as the United Nations.

The prospect of talks drew a more positive response from Christian church leaders.

"In the current situation, the Indonesian government must open its heart so that Papuans still feel part of Indonesia," activist priest Father John Djonga said.

The priest who is based in Wamena, said the recent violence and government response had aggravated wounds in the Papua conflict.

Djonga also agreed that security forces should be withdrawn from the region because their presence would remain a source of tension.

Jakarta has raised troop numbers in Papua since August following demonstrations against alleged racism against Papuan students in East Java that month.

In an Oct. 1 statement, Protestant leaders in Papua supported dialogue with Jakarta. They also called on the government to free all Papuans detained for participating in previous rallies.

Their spokesman, Rev. Sofyan Socratez Yoman, said they wanted future generations in Papua to live peacefully and safely.

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