Ronna Nirmala, Jakarta – Suspected separatist rebels killed four construction workers and were holding four people hostage in the latest burst of violence in Indonesia's Papua region, police and reports said Friday, as the insurgents warned non-ethnic Papuan workers to leave conflict areas.
The incident unfolded amid a government crackdown on armed Papuan rebels and after Jakarta classified them as terrorists in the wake of the killings by insurgents of an army general, a policeman and four civilians in April.
On Thursday, around 30 suspected members of the Free Papua Movement ambushed a truck carrying construction materials for the Trans Papua Highway megaproject in Yahukimo regency, and attacked workers with arrows, axes, machetes and rifles, provincial police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal said, citing witnesses.
"At 3:50 [p.m.], the Yahukimo police received information from eyewitnesses that there had been shootings of people in Bingky village," Kamal said in a statement.
The four people killed were workers at a bridge project, which is part of the 4,300 km (2,672 mile) long highway. They were identified as Suardi, Sudarto, Idin, and Saiful, Kamal said.
"Our team is on the way to the scene. It is far from the main town [of Dekai] in Yahukimo and can take four hours by road," he said.
Indonesian-language reports published on Friday by local news outlets the Voice of Indonesia and Detik quoted Kamal as saying the rebels had also taken four hostages.
A spokesman for the military in Papua – a region at the far-eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago where a separatist insurgency has simmered since the 1960s – said the attack was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the construction of the megaproject initiated by the government of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.
This latest attack was reminiscent of a December 2018 strike when insurgents shot dead at least 20 workers who were building a bridge for the same highway project in Nduga regency. Violence has bubbled over in the region ever since.
"These are terrorists who don't want Papua to be developed and prosperous and make civilians victims of their acts of terror," military spokesman Col. I Gusti Nyoman Suriastawa said, adding that security forces were hunting the attackers.
The National Liberation Army of West Papua, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, did not claim responsibility for Thursday's attack, but urged migrants from other parts of Indonesia to exit conflict areas of Papua at once.
"Whether you are construction workers, motorcycle taxi drivers, any profession, leave the war zones immediately, especially Puncak, Intan Jaya, Ndugama, Yahukimo and Pegunungan Bintang Mountains," Sebby Sambom, the armed wing's spokesman, said in a statement when the media asked about Thursday's violence.
"Don't listen to the TNI and police who said that civilians will not be victimized. There's no guarantee. The TNI and Polri are deceiving you. If you die, it's your family's loss," he said, using the Indonesian acronym for the military.
Military spokesman Suriastawa had urged the public to ignore a similar call from Sambom earlier this month, saying security forces would protect all Papuans from the insurgents.
'Have identified armed terrorists in Papua'
Meanwhile, a spokesman for a joint police and military operation codenamed Nemangkawi, said that security forces had arrested 11 rebels and killed four others between May and June 12.
"We have identified armed terrorists in Papua, their network and the location of their camps. It's just a matter of time," the operation's spokesman M. Iqbal Alqudussy said in a statement on Friday.
President Jokowi had ordered security forces to intensify operations against the rebels after a spate of violence in April.
Cahyo Pamungkas, a researcher on Papua at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said crackdowns and the use of force were not the best way to deal with separatist groups.
"What the government is dealing with are groups who want independence. From the outset it should have sent negotiators, not security forces," Cahyo told BenarNews.
Besides, the increase in violence in Papua has seriously affected the people in the province, he said.
"The government should initiate a humanitarian pause and then start dialogue with [armed] groups," Cahyo said.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded the Papua region – which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island – and annexed it.
Many Papuans and rights groups said the 1969 vote, known as the Act of Free Choice, was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the United Nations accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Indonesia's rule.