Monday, May 293:41 PM SGT

Congress opens in Irian Jaya to discuss fate of West Papua

JAYAPURA, Indonesia, May 29 (AFP) -

Thousands of people gathered in this Irian Jaya capital on Monday to discuss the future of Indonesia's easternmost province, which many here hope will break away from the rest of the country.

A youth choir sang two religious hymns to mark the start of the opening ceremony of the Papuan People's Congress, which began one hour later than initially scheduled.

The hymns, which included Beethoven's Ode to Joy, were to be followed by prayers, before work will begin on laying down the rules and procedures for the gathering.

The one-week congress involves 2,780 delegates representing ethnic and professional groups and is being held under the theme of "Let us correct the history of West Papua," organizers said.

"The Papuan People's Congress 2000 is being organized properly and democratically to express the political aspirations of the people of West Papua in the context of the existing democratic and legal mechanisms," said Tom Beanal, one of the two co-presidents of the West Papua presidium.

"It is the ultimate end for the people of West Papua to part from Indonesia in a peaceful and democratic way," he added.

Jakarta-appointed Irian Jaya governor Freddy Numberi told journalists shortly before attending the opening ceremony that secession for Irian Jaya from Indonesia was not to be discussed during the congress.

"The congress is only to straighten history, it is not for independence," Numbery said, adding that that was what the organizers had told Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Wahid had announced his intention to open the congress but cancelled at the last minute on Saturday for fear his presence could be misconstrued as support for secession, officials said.

The natural resource-rich territory of Irian Jaya, formerly Dutch Western New Guinea, became an Indonesian province following a UN-monitored ballot in

However UN recognition of Indonesia's sovereignty only came in 1969.

Since the early 1960s Indonesian authorities, who succeeded the former Dutch regime, have fought a low-level guerrilla war with the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in the province.

As has been the case in the now-independent East Timor and in the embattled province of Aceh, brutal repression by the army under former president Suharto has radicalized local people, who increasingly reject rule by Jakarta.

Wahid has ruled out allowing any province to secede.