(Reuters) -Nine people were shot dead in Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua in an attack believed to be perpetrated by armed separatists, police said on Saturday.
Police in the provincial capital of Jayapura told local media the incident, the deadliest in recent years, occurred on Saturday morning in the remote highland area of Nduga.
“It’s true there was an attack on civilians that resulted in 10 (people sustaining) gunshot wounds, nine of whom died,” Faizal Rahmadani, director of criminal investigation at the Papua regional police, told state news agency Antara.
Authorities were investigating the incident but had prioritised evacuating civilians, he said.
Reuters could not immediately reach the Papua police spokesperson for comment.
Saturday’s attack comes days after protests about a new law that will see the region divided from two into five provinces, with the addition of South Papua, Central Papua and Highland Papua provinces.
The government says the new administrative regions will accelerate development, improve the delivery of public services and create more opportunities for Papuans to join the civil service.
But critics say the move will give Jakarta more power over the far-flung, resource-rich region, where a low-level battle for independence has been waged since the area became part of Indonesia after a controversial United Nations-supervised vote in 1969.
The West Papua Liberation Army, which the government has designated as a terrorist organisation, this month rejected the administrative carve-up, threatening to shoot dead any officials involved.
“Jakarta’s divide-and-rule strategy was opposed across the board in Papua …. Papuans are concerned that more non-Indigenous Papuans will arrive, further marginalizing them in their own land,” said Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer with Amnesty International Australia, of the deadliest attack since 2018.
“It is likely Papuan armed fighters today sent a message that more non-Indigenous Papuans are not welcome.”
A report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict this week said the West Papua Liberation Army had “unleashed an unprecedented level of violence in Papua” since its “Declaration of War” in 2018, primarily driven by the group’s ability to acquire more weapons.
(Writing by Kate LambEditing by William Mallard and Mark Potter)