Suspected insurgents fired at security forces in Papua who were retrieving bodies of 16 slain construction workers, the military said Thursday, while a rebel spokesman confirmed that they took casualties in launching one of the bloodiest attacks in the province.
Soldiers traded shots with the guerrillas, but were unsure if there were injuries on the rebel side during the gunfight that took place Wednesday on Puncak Kabo hill in Nduga regency, local military commander Col. Jonathan Binsar P. Sianipar said.
“When we were moving 16 bodies to the helicopter landing site, we were fired on by the separatist group,” Sianipar said in a statement issued by the military’s regional command.
Government forces did not suffer injuries, Sianipar said.
In addition, Puncak Kabo’s thick forest and rough terrain hampered attempts to remove the bodies, he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, soldiers and police managed to reach Puncak Kabo, where workers who were building roads and bridges were killed over the weekend, the military said.
All the bodies were recovered later in the evening despite difficulties faced by the security forces, regional military chief Maj. Gen. Yosua Pandit Sembiring told reporters.
A search was ongoing for several people still missing, he said. Police earlier said that 31 workers and a soldier were killed, but military officials on Thursday were still trying to verify what caused the discrepancy in casualty figures.
The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), has claimed responsibility for the killings, alleging that the people they killed were soldiers from the military’s engineering detachment, and not civilian workers.
Officials said the attack was the worst carried out by separatist rebels in the last 10 years in Papua, located at the far eastern end of Indonesia and one of the archipelago’s poorest regions despite its rich natural resources.
Eleven civilians and 11 security personnel were killed in 19 cases of armed violence in the province, from 2014 through 2017.
Armed with ‘military-grade’ weapons
Egianus Kogoya, the leader of the rebel group claiming the attack, commands around 50 members armed with military-grade weapons, authorities said.
Egianus is the son of Silas Kogoya, the TPNPB leader in the 1990s.
In a video posted on YouTube, Egianus said that the weapons the group used were seized from Indonesian security forces.
Sebby Sembom, a rebel spokesman, confirmed Egianus' claim.
“We seized all (weapons) from the TNI-Polri (soldiers and police). We killed them and seized their weapons,” he told BenarNews. He declined to say how many weapons Egianus’ group had.
Papuan military spokesman Col. Muhamad Aidi acknowledged that Egianus’ group had dozens of standard-issue military weapons, including rifles.
“Some of the firearms were seized from soldiers and police,” he told reporters, adding that some of their weapons also came from outside the country.
The Egianus group is one of the many TPNPB guerrilla factions, mostly operating in Papua’s central highlands.
“The attack carried out by TPNPB had been prepared. We declared a war in early 2018,” Sebby told BenarNews in a phone interview.
He claimed that during the attack on Dec. 2, no TPNPB member was killed, but several were injured by gunfire.
Agreement between insurgents and workers
Nathal, a former employee of PT Istaka Karya, a state-owned construction company that builds roads and bridges in Nduga, told reporters there was an agreement last year between construction workers and the rebel group.
Under the deal, workers would vacate their camps starting Nov. 24 each year to allow separatists to celebrate their independence day in the area on Dec. 1.
“At that time in November 2017, an agreement was made that every Nov. 24, the dorms or camps must be vacated because Dec. 1 is their independence day,” said Nathal, referring to the insurgents.
“I’m sorry, why were they still in the camp, even though it was clear that the camp had to be vacated starting Nov. 24?” said Nathal, who uses only one name, like many in Indonesia.
Another worker named Makbul told reporters that a gunfight between rebels and soldiers during an attack, which killed a soldier at a military post on Monday, lasted from 5 a.m. until around 7 p.m.
“The post was attacked because four people who escaped the shootings (on construction workers) fled to the TNI (military) post,” Makbul said.
A video seen by BenarNews showed the bodies of the victims lying on a rocky road, while charred heavy equipment, some still burning, could be glimpsed nearby.