JAKARTA (Reuters) - The governor of Indonesia's Papua province has called for an end to a hunt for separatist rebels who killed at least 16 workers this month, saying villagers were being traumatized and should be allowed celebrate Christmas in peace.
The military rejected the plea to suspend the search in the remote, heavily forested province on the western half of New Guinea island, and said the governor could face prosecution if he came out in support of the rebels.
"We ask President Jokowi to immediately withdraw troops," Papua Governor Lukas Enembe told reporters on Thursday, referring to President Joko Widodo by his nickname.
"The presence of Indonesian military and National Police personnel in Nduga has traumatized the community ... resulting in them seeking refuge in the forest," Enembe said.
Members of the military wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) claimed responsibility for killing at least 16 people working on a bridge on a high-profile road project, and a soldier, in the Nduga area.
At least 300 villagers were reported last week to have fled into the forest to escape the military sweep.
Papua has been plagued by a separatist conflict since the former Dutch colony was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.
Enembe said the community should be allowed to celebrate Christmas in peace.
"We pay our respects to the past and present victims, but this is enough. There must be no further civilian casualties," he said.
A spokesman for Widodo was not immediately able to comment on the matter, but the military rejected Enembe's call.
Provincial military spokesman Muhammad Aidi said forces were searching for the remains of four of the victims of the attack on the bridge and they would not leave.
"If the governor, Lukas Enembe, poses in support of the Free Papua Movement struggle and rejects the national strategic programme policy, he has violated state law and should be prosecuted," Aidi said.
Enembe did not say what action he thought should be taken against those responsible for the killings, but said in past attacks separatists had fled the area immediately.
The provincial parliament would look in to the incident with the National Human Rights Commission, he said.
The rebels have rejected a call to surrender and have demanded a referendum on the future of the area.
Widodo wants to develop impoverished Papua and tap its resources and has tried to ease tensions and address rights concerns while stepping up investment with projects like the Trans Papua highway.
The OPM has said it views the project workers as members of the military and casualties in their war against the government.
(Reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe and Agustinus Beo Da Costa; Writing by Fergus Jensen; Editing by Robert Birsel)