Security forces in Indonesia shot dead two ethnic Uyghurs during their hunt for the country's most wanted militant in a remote part of Sulawesi, one of the archipelago's main islands, a senior police officer said Wednesday.
The men were among six Uyghurs from China's Xinjiang region who are believed to have joined wanted militant Santoso's Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group, Central Sulawesi Police Chief Rudy Sufahriadi told a press conference.
Santoso had declared allegiance to the Islamic State terror group in an audio recording released by the MIT in July 2014.
The two Uyghurs were killed in a shootout Tuesday in Poso’s Lore Peore district between suspected militants and security forces, Rudy said.
Four more Uyghur men are still with the group, according to police, who said they obtained the information from a captured MIT militant.
The men are from the Uyghur Muslim minority group in China's Xinjiang region, where Beijing is pursuing a "strike hard" campaign to quell unrest and has launched crackdowns on civil society.
Persistent violence in the region has led to hundreds of deaths which Chinese authorities blamed on Islamic extremism and foreign influence. Rights groups say the violence was a response to draconian restrictions on the region's religious and cultural life.
The World Uyghur Congress linked the Uyghur killings in Indonesia to alleged Chinese persecution of the minority group.
"Uyghurs cannot bear Chinese persecution, and are therefore forced to flee their homes to go all over the world," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Uyghur exile group, told BenarNews.
"If there are individuals who have been involved in extreme behavior, Beijing should bear direct political responsibility," he said.
"This is because China’s brutal crackdown has resulted in a large number of Uyghur fugitives, who were influenced differently in different countries."
He expressed concern that the Chinese government might use the Indonesian incident "to carry out even harsher crackdowns on Uyghurs in the name of fighting terrorism."
Indonesian police identified the two dead Uyghurs as “Farok alias Magalasi Bahtusan, and Nuretin alias Abdul,” Rudy told reporters.
“The identification process moved quickly because we involved an MIT member who was captured alive, Zaelani. He said the two bodies were those of Farok and Nuretin from Xinjiang, China,” Rudi said.
The corpses were being held at the Bhayangkara hospital in Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, pending further investigation, he said.
According to Zaelani, the two joined the MIT group in the middle of 2015, police claimed.
Indonesian officials are not sure how the Uyghur men managed to enter Indonesia and travel to Poso.
A series of military-police operations has brought hundreds of personnel to the remote and mountainous region since January 2015 in an effort to crush the MIT group and capture Santoso.
MIT is thought to number around 30 people, including three women from West Nusa Tenggara province, hundreds of miles away, who reportedly joined the group in 2012 after their husbands were killed in Poso.
“With the death of Farok and Nuretin, we believe there are still four other Uyghurs with Santoso and his gang in the Poso hinterlands, because Zaelani has told us there were six of them in all,” Central Sulawesi police spokesman Hari Suprapto told BenarNews.
“We are investigating how they were able to get into Poso, who was their escort, and what role they had in MIT,” Hari said.
A number of Uyghurs have been picked up by Indonesian police in recent years and accused of militant activity. In December 2015, police arrested a Uyghur man in Bekasi, West Java who was allegedly involved in planning a suicide bomb attack.
In July, four Uyghur men were sentenced to six years in jail each on terrorism charges, after being arrested in Poso in September 2014 allegedly on their way to join the MIT.
The two Uyghur men who were killed apparently joined Santoso in Poso when security forces were carrying out a massive operation to track him down, a local activist pointed out.
“They managed to get through, and there were six of them. Now there are four, since two are dead. Even with just four, it’s a risk for police,” said Moh Affandi, director of the Central Sulawesi Institute for Legal Studies ahd Human Rights Advocacy (LPS-HAM).
The six Uyghurs undoubtedly brought weapons and explosives with them when they joined MIT, he said.
“Their presence in MIT raises many questions. It’s up to the police to answer them,” he said.