Updated at: 02/22/2013 10:08 AM
By JEFREY PATTIRAJAWANE
(AP) JAYAPURA, Indonesia - Gunmen shot at an Indonesian military helicopter in the restive province of Papua on Friday as the crew was trying to evacuate the bodies of eight soldiers killed in attacks a day earlier.
Three crew members were wounded in Friday’s attack on the Super Puma helicopter, which was forced to abort its mission and rush the injured to a hospital, said Lt. Col. Jansen Simanjuntak, an army spokesman.
Eight soldiers and four civilians were killed in two separate attacks in the area on Thursday. The area is a stronghold of separatists who have battled Indonesian rule in the impoverished region for more than 40 years.
In the deadliest attack Thursday, about 20 assailants armed with guns and machetes attacked a group of soldiers walking to an airport in Puncak district to collect communication equipment, killing seven, Simanjuntak said.
Col. Agus Rianto, a national police spokesman, said Friday that four civilians were killed.
Military chief Adm. Agus Suhartono said the soldiers were walking unarmed as part of the army’s strategy to earn the public’s trust.
That attack came shortly after gunmen stormed an army post in a village in neighboring Puncak Jaya district and fatally shot one soldier and injured another before fleeing into the jungle, Simanjuntak said.
Indonesian military spokesman Rear Adm. Iskandar Sitompul said the same group was responsible for both attacks.
Simanjuntak identified the assailants as members of a local separatist group led by Goliat Tabuni.
Senior Security Minister Djoko Suyanto said the incidents were "very irresponsible acts by the armed groups in Papua," adding that "the government very strongly condemns such brutal incidents."
Data from Suyanto’s office show that 10 soldiers and 12 policemen were killed in 14 attacks in 2012.
Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, said many villagers living near the sites of Thursday’s attacks have left their homes because of fears of military retaliation. Some fled to churches.
"What we heard from church officials there, villagers fear being wrongly targeted," Harsono said.
The former Dutch colony of Papua in the western part of New Guinea was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 following a U.N.-sponsored ballot of tribal leaders that has since been dismissed as a sham. A small, poorly armed separatist organization known as the Free Papua Movement has battled for independence since then.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)