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Exiled Papua independence leader calls for UN-backed vote

Exiled Papua independence leader calls for UN-backed vote

Jakarta: The exiled leader of Papua's independence movement has called for "a free and democratic referendum" backed by the UN, and warned over a possible bloodbath after weeks of deadly unrest gripped Indonesia's easternmost territory.

Tens of thousands protested across Papua -- on the western half of New Guinea island -- as anger over racism and calls for self-rule fuelled mass demonstrations and violent clashes between civilians and security forces.

"We need the UN to intervene," Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, told AFP by telephone from Britain, where he has lived for years.

"It's a new era and I'm confident that the world is beginning to notice what's going on."

A low-level separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in Papua, a former Dutch colony, after Jakarta took over the mineral-rich region in the 1960s.

A vote to stay within the archipelago was widely viewed as rigged.

This week, Indonesia repeated its position that a new independence vote was a non-starter, and pointed its finger at Wenda for stoking unrest.

Authorities also arrested a high-profile Indonesian rights activist for incitement, along with dozens who took part in pro-independence demonstrations.

Wenda -- who angered Jakarta by pushing for a UN rights probe and Papuan independence at a recent Pacific islands forum -- dismissed the government's claims as "politically motivated".

The majority of Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Agencies

Agencies

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