More than two dozen people have died in riots in Papua, authorities said Tuesday, sparking calls for an investigation into one of the bloodiest eruptions of violence to hit the restive Indonesian territory in years.
Thousands fled to shelters following an outburst of bloodshed that saw civilians burned alive in buildings set ablaze by protesters, with at least 30 people killed and dozens injured since Monday.
Papua, on the western half of New Guinea island, has been paralysed after weeks of protests fuelled by anger over racism, as well as fresh calls for self-rule in the impoverished territory.
“This is one of the bloodiest days in the past 20 years in Papua,” said Usman Hamid, Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director.
“Indonesian authorities must initiate a prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigation,” he added.
Some 26 people died in Wamena city where hundreds demonstrated and burned down a government office and other buildings on Monday, authorities said, as images showed burnt-out buildings and charred cars overturned on rubbish-strewn streets.
“Some were burned, some were hacked to death… some were trapped in fires,” local military commander Chandra Dianto told AFP.
Most victims were non-Papuans, authorities said, threatening an escalation in violence against migrants from other parts of the Southeast Asian archipelago.
A soldier and three civilians also died in the provincial capital Jayapura, where security forces and stone-throwing protesters clashed Monday.
The soldier was stabbed to death and three students died from rubber bullet wounds, authorities said, without elaborating.
Some 700 people had been rounded up for questioning, with several hundred later released.
Some 4,000 residents, including mothers and their children and the elderly, sought shelter at military and police posts, government buildings and a local church. Most were migrants.
“There are local Papuans who helped protect migrants by hiding them in their homes, but when word got out their houses were also targeted,” said Yudi, an Indonesian businessman living in Wamena, whose wife left Tuesday for security reasons.
“Wamena is destroyed,” he added.
The majority of Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia. Most previous clashes have been between separatists and security forces.
One analyst threw cold water on the idea that migrants may have been targeted in the fires.
“I doubt… that this was intentional, or at least planned,” Damien Kingsbury, a professor of international politics at Australia’s Deakin University.
Wamena resident Naftali Pawika said renewed violence was driving a wedge between neighbours.
“This conflict is splitting migrants and indigenous Papuans apart,” said the 37-year-old Papuan.
Monday’s protests in Wamena — mostly involving high-schoolers — were reportedly sparked by racist comments made by a teacher, but police have disputed that account as a hoax.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua described Monday’s violence as a “massacre” and said that 17 Papuan high school students had been gunned down by Indonesian security forces.
Neither the military nor the separatist movement’s claims could be independently verified.
Conflicting accounts are common in Papua and the government appears to have renewed a region-wide Internet service shutdown.
Jakarta has said the riots were meant to draw attention to Papuan independence at this week’s UN General Assembly.
A low-level separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in the former Dutch colony after Jakarta took over the mineral-rich region in the 1960s. A US-sponsored vote to stay within the archipelago was widely viewed as rigged.
Weeks of protests broke out across Papua and in other parts of Indonesia after the mid-August arrest and tear-gassing of dozens of Papuan students, who were also racially abused, in the country’s second-biggest city, Surabaya.