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Violence plagues Indonesia's restive province

In West Papua, US company Freeport-McMoran is in the cross-hairs.

Soldiers patrol along a road in Timika in Indonesia's Papua province, July 26, 2009. (Muhammad Yamin/Reuters)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Unidentified gunmen opened fire on a military convoy traveling along a road leading to the American-owned Freeport-McMoran Gold and Copper mine in Indonesia’s restive West Papua province Wednesday, the latest in a series of shootouts that have rocked the area since July.

Wednesday’s attack comes one day after about 600 additional troops arrived to help a security force already numbering more than 1,000 guard the road connecting the mine to the nearest city, Timika.

A string of violent shootings, all of them targeting Freeport employees in July and August, has killed several people, including one Australian. Wednesday’s shooting was the first to target military personnel. No casualties were reported.

Eight people, including two Freeport employees, had been arrested in connection with the previous attacks, but police said they are still searching for the actual gunmen.

Meanwhile, workers say the atmosphere around the mine remains tense. The company sent almost a thousand workers home for about two weeks following the first attack on July 11, though production was not affected and the workers have since returned. Drivers ferrying employees back and forth are now wearing flak jackets to protect themselves.

So what's going on?

Police have not said what the motives behind the shootings were, but spokesmen from both the military and the government were quick to blame a simmering Papuan separatist movement.

The Freeport mine, called Grasberg, has both the world’s largest reserves of recoverable copper and the world’s largest reserves of gold. For Papuans, most of whom still live in poverty despite the region’s wealth of natural resources, the Grasberg mine has long been a symbol of Jakarta’s centralized control and a natural target for freedom fighters. Human rights workers, however, doubt the Free Papua Movement, as it is known, has anywhere near the capabilities to carry out such attacks and instead blame ongoing feuds between the military and national police.

It’s not the first time shootings like these have occurred on this stretch of road. In 2002, two American schoolteachers and one Indonesian working at the mine were killed by gunmen.

The attack led to an FBI investigation. Ultimately a Papuan separatist, Antonius Wamang, confessed, saying he thought he was shooting at Indonesian soldiers.

But some human rights groups believe Wamang, who is serving life in prison, was set up by the military. They argue that the attack was staged to prolong security payments the mine had been making to the military for years but was, at the time, being pressured to suspend.

In the recent shootings, just as the attack in 2002, ballistics reports revealed that the bullets found at the scene came from the same weapons used by the military and police.