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Papua clashes spark Catholic airlift operation

Aid is being flown in to help refugees as clashes between Indonesian forces, rebels make land-based bid too risky

Papua clashes spark Catholic airlift operation

Church aid workers hold up a banner that says 'Humanitarian aid for Bilogai' in the hall of St. Michael's Church in Bilogai, Intan Jaya district. (Photo supplied)  

The Indonesian Catholic Church says it has been forced to fly in aid to help more than 1,000 people sheltering in a church compound amid ongoing clashes between security forces and Papuan rebels.

Violence flared in and around the village of Bilogai in Papua’s Intan Jaya district on Feb. 10, forcing more than 6,000 people to flee their homes.

Separatists have been waging a low-level insurgency against Indonesian rule for decades.

At least 1,000 sought shelter at St. Michael's Church in the locality, which comes under Timika Diocese.

Since then at least 17 people — 12 civilians, four soldiers and one policeman — have died in the fighting so far. It is not clear how many have been injured or how many rebel casualties there are.   

Thousands of soldiers and police have been sent to the area.

Church officials said the situation has made it difficult for aid to be distributed to those seeking shelter.  

Access by land is difficult at the best of times, but the fighting has made it dangerous for aid workers, Beni Meo, coordinator of the relief effort, said on Feb. 24.

“We have flown in at least 1.2 tonnes of basic necessities to Bilogai after chartering a plane in Timika," he said.

He said the local Church has established three coordination posts — one in the church compound in Bilogai, a church in the nearby town of Nabire and another in Timika.

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"We are distributing food and other basic items," Meo told UCA News. “The humanitarian aid will continue because they will starve if the violence continues as most of the refugees are farmers who cannot tend their fields in these circumstances.”

The aid, he said, came from several parishes in Timika Diocese, nearby Jayapura Diocese, several Catholic groups and the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference.

Saul Wanimbo, chairman of Timika Diocese’s Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission, said the fighting has also made it difficult to communicate with people in and around Bilogai.

“The internet and phones can’t be used in Intan Jaya district, so we can’t get accurate information on what is going on there,” he said. “All we know is people are facing a lack of food and are still too afraid to return to their homes.” 

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