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By ANDREW KILVERT
Thousands of indigenous Papuans from villages have gathered on the outskirts of Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia's easternmost province of Irian Jaya, to join street protests and flag-raising ceremonies today in support of independence from Jakarta.
About 300 young men were enrolling in the "Papuan Army" at the house of a leading independence supporter. Wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the Morning Star flag of the Free Papua Movement, they practised military-style drills.
In Timika, on the south side of Irian Jaya's rugged mountainous spine and close to the massive Freeport-McMoRan copper and gold mine, 27 tent "embassies" representing tribal groups from across the territory occupy the grounds of the local Catholic church, which is festooned with Morning Star flags and a sign over the gate saying in English: "God will deliver our land unto us."
At Lake Sentani outside Jayapura, many protesters yesterday began the 40-kilometre march to the town centre, where they plan to raise the independence flag in front of the provincial government office and declare self-rule.
Similar protests are planned in centres across Irian Jaya today, marking the anniversary of the day in 1961 when the former colonial rulers, the Dutch, handed self-government to the Melanesian population - triggering military confrontation by President Sukarno's Indonesia, which claimed the territory as successor state to the Netherlands East Indies.
The flag-raisings, based on millenarian beliefs in the coming of independence, are feared likely to bring down a bloody crackdown by the Indonesian military.
Hundreds of extra troops have been flown into Irian Jaya aboard Hercules aircraft from Sulawesi and Ambon to bolster the already heavily militarised province. Some have been deployed along the protest route in Jayapura, and others are camped around the airport at Sentani.
Among the Papuans, however, the approaching anniversary has taken on a festive air, with many openly wearing independence-flag emblems and occasionally calling out "Papua Merdeka" ("Free Papua").
Agitation for independence broke out last year with the fall of President Suharto and increasing international support for a referendum in East Timor.
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