JAKARTA • Security forces in Indonesia's easternmost province of Papua are hunting for a separatist group suspected of killing at least 24 construction workers building a bridge in a remote district, a military spokesman said yesterday.
Papua has suffered a simmering separatist conflict since it was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised United Nations-backed referendum in 1969 and remains one of its poorest regions.
Colonel Muhammad Aidi said security forces were trying to reach the scene of the attack in Yigi district, after a priest said that 24 men from construction company PT Istaka Karya had been "sadistically slaughtered" by an armed separatist group.
"According to the report we received, it started with an armed criminal separatist group holding a ceremony to commemorate what they claim to be their independence day on Dec 1," Col Aidi told Metro TV.
He said one of the workers appeared to have taken a photograph which angered the group and sparked the killings.
Some Papuans regard Dec 1 as their independence day from Dutch colonial rule.
Col Aidi said the bodies of the workers were believed to be near the bridge they were building.
A military and police team with more than 150 personnel was going in on foot after arriving at a nearby district, Papua police spokesman Suryadi Diaz said. Four wounded workers fleeing the area had claimed a military post was also attacked and a soldier killed, he added.
Mr Diaz said the armed group was led by Egianus Kogoya, a leader from the Free Papua Movement (OPM). The OPM could not be reached for comment.
Indonesian Public Works Minister Basuki Hadimuljono told a briefing that the bridge construction work would be postponed until the area was secured.
Since coming to power in 2014, President Joko Widodo has pledged to hasten development and open up access to the resource-rich province.
Mr Joko yesterday ordered the military to guard construction workers in Papua and pledged infrastructure construction in the area would continue, according to comments on the website of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.