WAMENA, Indonesia: Indonesian security forces Thursday stepped up the grim search for victims of a massacre by suspected separatist rebels in restive Papua province, having retrieved 16 corpses so far, the military said.
The fatalities, believed to be of construction workers, mark the deadliest bout of violence in years to hit a region wracked by a low-level independence insurgency.
"This was a very cruel act," national military chief Hadi Tjahjanto told reporters in Papua, vowing to catch the "rebels" and "bring them to justice".
The bodies were being sent to the city of Timika from the remote district of Nduga, a mountainous region where the attack happened Sunday, the local military said.
The dead have not yet been publicly identified and the military did not supply details about how they were killed, saying autopsies would be conducted.
An earlier eyewitness account supplied by the military said at least 19 people had been killed, by execution-style shootings or having their throats slit. Previous local media reports put the number of dead as high as 31.
It was not yet clear whether all the dead worked for a state-owned contractor that has been building bridges and roads to boost infrastructure in the impoverished region, the military said.
Another 20 people -- including five employees of the contractor -- have been evacuated from the area, but not all the company workers have been accounted for yet.
Some in Papua view Indonesia as a colonial occupier and its building work as a way to exert more control over a region that shares a border with Papua New Guinea, an independent nation.
One soldier was killed and two were wounded earlier this week when they were sent to the remote site to investigate reports about the killings, according to authorities.
WORKERS SHOT DEAD
On Wednesday, the military supplied an account from one survivor identified by his initials "JA" who claimed about 50 rebels entered the workers' camp on Saturday and led them away with their hands tied behind their backs.
The following day, the rebels shot dead a group of workers, while some tried to escape, the account said.
The attackers allegedly recaptured half a dozen workers and slit their throats, according to the witness, who said at least 19 employees had been killed in all.
A Facebook account purportedly run by the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB) said the armed group had killed 24 workers on the orders of regional commander Ekianus Kogoya.
Indonesia routinely blames separatists for violence in Papua and conflicting accounts are common.
This weekend, about 500 activists -- including an Australian -- were arrested in a nationwide police crackdown that coincided with rallies on December 1, a date many Papuans consider their anniversary of independence from Dutch colonialists.
Papua declared itself independent on that date in 1961, but neighbouring Indonesia took control of the resource-rich region two years later on the condition it hold an independence referendum.
Jakarta officially annexed Papua in 1969 with a UN-backed vote, widely seen as a sham.
A former employee of the state contractor, who worked in the area of the weekend attack, said rebels had warned the firm in writing last year that the work camp should be vacated around the independence anniversary.
"The letter said 'we're asking that workers not disturb us and we won't disturb them,'" the 38-year-old told reporters in Papua. He did not provide a copy of the letter.
Papua experienced several spasms of violence this summer including the killing of three local people, allegedly by rebels.
While construction workers have been targeted in the past, much of the violence has involved skirmishes between rebels and Indonesian security forces.
Some fighting has been centred around a huge gold and copper mine operated by US-based firm Freeport McMoRan -- a frequent flashpoint in the local struggle for independence and a bigger share of the region's resources. -- AFP