TIMIKA, Indonesia -- Hundreds of Indonesian soldiers will be deployed to continue work on the trans Papua highway, the military said Friday, after civilian workers fled the landmark development project that's become a target for attacks by Papuan independence fighters.
The military spokesman for Indonesia's easternmost Papua region, Muhummad Aidi, said that construction through the mountainous jungle interior of Papua from Wamena to Merauke will continue despite the series of attacks. He said the deployment of 600 military personnel will be in stages.
Some 19 people including one soldier died in a Dec. 2 attack, and three soldiers who were part of a contingent to provide security for military engineers were killed Thursday.
"On Dec. 2, we all know that there was a heinous massacre," Aidi told reporters. "No more workers dare to work there."
Since November, at least 31 people have died in the conflict not counting unconfirmed civilian deaths that Papuan activists say occurred during Indonesian military operations.
An insurgency has simmered in Papua, which makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea, since the early 1960s when Indonesia annexed the Dutch-controlled territory.
Discrimination against indigenous Papuans and abuses by Indonesian police and military have drawn renewed attention globally as Indonesia campaigns for membership in the U.N.'s human rights watchdog.
Indonesia says the trans Papua highway will bring development to the volatile region but independence activists, who want a referendum on self determination, see the infrastructure development as a way for Jakarta to cement control.
Aidi said 21 of the 32 bridges needed for the highway still need to be built and the military's engineering force will be responsible for completing them.
"The government wants to open what is in isolation so that the social security program can touch the people there and then build more schools and health facilities and turn the wheel of the economy," he said.