In the deadliest attack by insurgents in Indonesia’s Papua region since 2018, separatist rebels killed eight workers repairing a telecommunications tower, security officials said Thursday.
The attack in Beoga, a district of Puncak regency, targeted employees working for PT Palapa Timur Telematika (PTT) who were repairing a tower belonging to the country’s largest cellular operator, Telkomsel, according to a spokesperson for a group mixed police and military work.
“The attack took place on Wednesday, but only became known today,” Ahmad Musthofa Kamal said in a statement. “Eight PTT employees were killed by the armed criminal group.”
A Papuan rebel group said its members attacked and killed the workers.
Kamal said a worker discovered the bodies after arriving at the site on Thursday and phoned authorities. Security personnel have not yet been able to recover the bodies of the victims due to bad weather, Kamal said.
The Puncak Police Department has formed a team to help with the evacuation process and conduct an investigation, he said, adding that investigators have security camera footage that captured the attack.
The attack in the Far East region of Indonesia is reminiscent of that of December 2, 2018, carried out by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB). Rebels attacked laborers constructing roads and bridges in Nduga Regency as part of the Transpapua Highway project. They killed 20 people, including an Indonesian soldier.
At the time, the TPNPB said those killed were not civilians, but soldiers from the Army Engineer Detachment. The attack prompted the government to send troops to Papua.
The same group, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack.
“We shot eight people. One person fell into a ravine when we shot him, so we don’t know his fate,” the TPNPB said in a statement that identified the victims by name.
The statement urged the Indonesian government to immediately withdraw approval for a gold mine at the Wabu block in Intan Jaya regency, to shut down the massive Grasberg gold and copper mine operated by the US company Freeport McMoRan and to resolve cases of human rights violations in Papua.
“As long as the government continues to maintain the Wabu Block and Freeport continues to function, we will continue to fight and fight to the last drop of our blood,” the TPNPB said.
Papua Military Command spokesman Colonel Aqsha Erlangga said police would investigate Wednesday’s killings.
“The Papua police will chase the killers. This is an extraordinary crime,” Aqsha said in a statement.
On Thursday, a soldier was injured in an ambush by about 15 armed separatist fighters in Beoga, about 15 km (9 miles) from the scene of Wednesday’s killings in the district, Aqsha said.
Meanwhile, civilians reportedly sought refuge in a church to escape fighting between rebels and security forces.
“This afternoon, the displaced Beoga community gathered at Milawak 1 Church. Please help me,” read a message on the Facebook page of “Info Beoga.” The page posted photos showing children sitting on the lawn of the church.
Violence and tensions in the Papua region – made up of the provinces of Papua and West Papua – have escalated in recent years.
In 2019, more than 40 people were killed in the region after police raided a dormitory in Surabaya, Java, and arrested dozens of Papuan students amid allegations they disrespected the Indonesian flag. Video has circulated of armed police using racial slurs against students.
Last year, the government branded separatist rebels terrorists after insurgents ambushed and killed an army general who headed the regional branch of the National Intelligence Agency. The murder prompted President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to order a crackdown.
The OPM has been fighting for the independence of the predominantly Christian region since the 1960s in the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region that makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-sponsored vote, which locals and activists say was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the UN accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Jakarta’s rule.