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Indonesia Detains 17 in Freeport Killings

Police detained 17 suspects believed involved in a series of deadly ambushes at the world's largest gold mine, an official said Tuesday.

The men were rounded up Monday at several locations within a few miles of the Grasberg mining complex operated by U.S. conglomerate Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc., said Papua Police Chief Bagus Ekodanto.

Police also confiscated ammunition, but it was unclear if the bullets matched those found at the scene of shootings that left three people dead, including a 29-year-old Australian, an Indonesian security guard and a policeman.

At least 12 others, most of them police, were wounded in the five days of attacks starting July 11 along a road between the mine and the town of Timika.

"We are still questioning (the suspects) intensively to determine their role in the three (fatal) shooting incidents," said Ekodanto, declining to identify them or give further details.

It remains unclear who was behind the ambushes.

Arizona-based Freeport has been targeted with arson, roadside bombs and blockades since production began in the 1970s during the U.S.-backed Suharto dictatorship.

In a conference call with analysts, the company's CEO, Richard Adkerson, said he knew of 15 arrests, including one man he said apparently acknowledged being a sniper in the attacks, and said six people had been charged. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

"We have been assured from the highest levels of government in Indonesia they are committed to provide safety for our people and for our operations," Adkerson said.

Papua is home to a four-decade old, low-level insurgency against the government, and members of the Free Papua Movement - who see Freeport as a symbol of outside rule - were initially blamed by authorities for the latest violence.

Some analysts, however, believe the shootings resulted from a rivalry between the police and military over multimillion dollar illegal gold mining or protection businesses at the mine. Others blame criminal gangs.

Military spokesman Sagom Tamboen said, "No members of the military were among the 17 people detained by police."

The shootings were the worst violence at Freeport since the killing of three schoolteachers, including two Americans, in August 2002 that sparked widespread protests by locals who feel they are not benefiting from the depletion of Papua's natural resources.

Freeport employs about 20,000 people in Papua, where it has extracted billions of dollars worth of gold and copper and still has some of the largest reserves in the world. Freeport is one of the top taxpayers to the Indonesian government, which is also a minority stake holder.

Papua, a desperately poor mountain province, lies some 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) east of the capital, Jakarta. Foreign journalists are prohibited from visiting the highly militarized province of about 2.5 million people.