Indonesian police said Tuesday they were investigating reports that separatist rebels had killed 31 construction workers in the restive eastern province of Papua.
Local police and officials said they had received information that as many as 31 workers who were building bridges in the Yall area in Papua’s Nduga regency were killed on Saturday and Sunday.
“We cannot confirm the figure yet,” national police spokesman Muhammad Iqbal told reporters in Jakarta, adding that police and military personnel were sent to the regency to retrieve the bodies of victims and hunt the attackers.
Iqbal said the police had identified the rebel group who carried out the attack, but he declined to give details.
“What is clear is that the police will pursue and crack down on this group,” he said.
Jayawijaya regency police chief Yan Pieter Reba said he was informed that 31 workers had been killed.
He said the workers were attacked after one of them took photos of a ceremony held by a group of separatist rebels to mark what they considered as Papua’s independence day.
“They [the rebels] were angry and killed the workers in their camp,” Reba told reporters.
He said 24 workers were killed in their camp, while eight others fled to a local councilor’s house but were chased by the attackers.
“The information we received is that seven of them were also killed and one person managed to flee,” he said.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said the government was still trying to verify the information but emphasized that infrastructure projects in Papua would continue despite the incident.
“We know Papua is, indeed, a very difficult region and there are still security disturbances like that,” Jokowi told reporters in Jakarta.
“I have ordered the police and military chiefs to investigate it. Things are still unclear because there is no cellular signal there,” Jokowi said.
The alleged killings were first reported by a local priest, Wilhelmus Kogoya, said Papua police spokesman Ahmad Kamal.
Alimin Gwijangge, deputy chairman of the Nduga regional council, confirmed the killings to BenarNews in a phone interview and said the bodies had yet to be collected.
He said he was in Timika at that time but immediately returned to Nduga after hearing about the killings.
“The OPM group led by Egianus Kogoya killed the workers,” he said, using the Indonesian abbreviation for the separatist Free Papua Movement.
The group, according to Gwijangge, has been operating in the Yall area of Nduga.
Attempts by BenarNews to contact separatist rebels were unsuccessful.
At least 139 police and soldiers in 25 vehicles were sent to the Yall area to retrieve the bodies and hunt for the attackers, Jayawijaya deputy police chief Andreas Tampubolon said.
But difficult terrain and bad weather prevented the vehicles from reaching the scene of the killings, he said.
“We anticipate the worst,” Tampubolon said.
Col. Jonathan Binsar Sianipar, the local military chief, said another group of rebels attacked a military post in Nduga on Monday, killing a soldier.
Indonesia’s minister of Public Works and Housing, Basuki Hadimuljono, said he had ordered the suspension of construction work in the area, on recommendation from the provincial and military chiefs.
The speaker of the House of Representatives, Bambang Soesatyo, urged security forces to immediately arrest the perpetrators.
“I strongly condemn the killings,” he said.
Papua, located at the far eastern end of the Indonesia, is one of the archipelago’s poorest regions despite its rich natural resources.
It has been the scene of a low-level armed separatist conflict since the 1960s. Human rights groups have accused security forces of committing rights abuses during counter-insurgency operations.
Foreign journalists have been largely banned from reporting from Papua, with the government citing concerns for their security for the restrictions.