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West Papuan separatists hand petition to U.N. human rights chief

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GENEVA (Reuters) - A separatist movement in Indonesia's West Papua province delivered a petition with 1.8 million signatures demanding an independence referendum to U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Friday, its leader told Reuters after the meeting.

Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), said he hoped the United Nations would send a fact-finding mission to the province to substantiate allegations of human rights violations.

"Today is a historic day for me and for my people," Wenda said after the meeting in Geneva. "I handed over what I call the bones of the people of West Papua, because so many people have been killed."

He said West Papuans had no freedom of speech or assembly and the only way to be heard was through the petition, signed by almost three-quarters of the 2.5 million population.

"It weighs 40 kg. It’s like the biggest book in the world."

He said he also spoke to Bachelet about the situation in the Nduga region, where he said at least 11 people had been killed and more may have died after fleeing into the bush to escape Indonesian forces, and 22,000 people had been displaced.

Provincial military spokesman Muhammad Aidi said the allegation was unfounded.

"He cannot show the evidence of what he has accused (Indonesia and the military) of," Aidi said on Sunday. "It is the Free Papua Movement that killed the innocent civilians."

Last month 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.

The OPM has said it views the project workers as members of the military and casualties in their war against the government.

The governor of the province subsequently called for an end to a hunt for the rebels, saying villagers were being traumatised.

The military rejected the plea to suspend the search in the remote, heavily forested province on the western half of New Guinea island, a former Dutch colony incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants to develop impoverished Papua and tap its resources. Since coming to power in 2014, he has tried to ease tensions in Papua by freeing prisoners and addressing rights concerns, while stepping up investment with projects like the Trans Papua highway.

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Augustinus Beo Da Costa; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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