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Nov 17, 5:36 AM EST

Indonesia says Papua villages in standoff with rebels secure

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TEMBAGAPURA, Indonesia (AP) -- Indonesian police said they helped evacuate more than 340 people Friday from villages in easternmost Papua after security forces apparently gained the upper hand in a standoff with separatists. It was unclear if there were any casualties.

Papua police spokesman Suryadi Diaz said the villages of Kimbeli and Banti, where separatists stationed gunmen last week, were secured and 344 people including two dozen children were evacuated by bus to a nearby town. Those who left were mostly migrants from other regions while hundreds of indigenous Papuans stayed behind, police said.

Diaz said in a statement that the evacuation was preceded by a two-hour security operation that "hit back" against the separatists. Earlier Friday, a spokesman for the separatist National Liberation Army of West Papua said in an email that a military surveillance drone had flown over the area. A commander for the group could not be reached by mobile phone.

Another Papua police spokesman, Ahmad Musthofa Kamal, said that gunfire from hills surrounding one village had hampered the efforts of about 300 police and military personnel to move people.

Indonesia restricts journalist access to Papua and police information is not always reliable.

Tensions in the region near the U.S.-owned Grasberg gold and copper mine have flared in the past month. A series of attacks by suspected separatists have killed two policemen and injured more than half a dozen others.

Members of the National Liberation Army of West Papua last month declared an area near the mine a battlefield with Indonesian security forces and last week stationed armed men in the two main affected villages, Kimbeli and Banti, that are home to about 1,300 people.

A low-level insurgency for independence has simmered in Papua since it was annexed by Indonesia in the early 1960s. The region, which makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea, was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 following a U.N.-sponsored ballot of tribal leaders that has since been dismissed as a sham.

Police had made contradictory statements about the status of the villagers, initially calling them hostages and then in other instances saying their movements were not being restricted.

A commander of the armed separatist group, which uses the Indonesian acronym TNP, told The Associated Press last week that villagers were generally free to go about their business but prohibited from entering the area defined as a conflict zone.

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