Reports claim Indonesian anti-terrorist police have torched a remote village in the Papuan highlands amid clashes with guerrilla rebels in the region.
Activists say civilians have fled into the jungle in response to the unrest and there are now grave fears for their safety.
Media is strictly controlled in the region, making reports hard to verify, but it is claimed that Indonesia’s Gegana Brimob police unit attacked the village of Wandenggoback, in the Papuan highlands, in response to the shooting deaths of two police officers on December 3.
The two Indonesian police were reportedly killed earlier in the day during an offensive launched by the militant Free Papua Movement (OPM) and the anti-terrorist brigade responded by setting fire to schools, a church and houses in the village.
Reverend Benny Giay from the Papuan Christian Church in the province’s capital, Jayapura, says he has spoken to school teachers and young people who are among those who fled Wandenggoback.
“The police mobile brigade burned the church, schools and houses of the people and people have fled to the bush. They’ve become local refugees,” he said.
“It is in response, according to the military and the government sources here, to the two police who were shot.”
He says there are concerns for the safety of the villagers who have fled and are now hiding out in the rugged highlands.
“Some have run to a neighbouring district. Some we think they are in the bush and we are worried that they may get sick and even die out of starvation,” he said.
“What we are worrying about is that [the Brimob] have been doing this, they’ve been terrorising people, people are fleeing the villages and people are dying in the bush out of sickness.
“We are worried that this will continue to be the military’s [tactic] to kill Papuans off.”
Mr Giay says Indonesian authorities have blamed OPM guerrillas for the death of the two police officers, but he says that claim needs to be investigated.
“We are saying as a church to make sure, if the government allows human rights NGOs to go there and do an investigation so we can find out who made the shootings which killed two policemen,” he said.
On December 1 West Papuans marked 50 years since the province declared independence from Indonesia. Rallies were held in many areas and the province’s banned morning star flag was raised.
Nick Chesterfield, editor of West Papua Media, says they are getting reports from villages around Wandenggoback of a security crackdown in response to the independence ceremonies.
“The reports that we’re getting at the moment are that Indonesian security forces have been rampaging in areas near Nulia and that people are fleeing to the hills in the area,” he said.
“The district of Pagalome is now quote ’empty of humans as all have fled’.
“We’ve got a lot of difficulty getting strong verification up there because it’s been reported to us that troops are controlling all the roads out and any places that you can get a phone signal.”
Mr Chesterfield says as many as several thousand civilians could now be hiding out in the jungle.
“There have been instances in the past where up to 10,000 people have hidden out in the mountains for up to three months,” he said.
But he says there is little food and shelter for those who have fled.
“There’s not much cover in the highlands. Where people will be fleeing is to the mountain peaks,” he said.
“This is the monsoon time, so the the nights are a little warmer but the conditions are atrocious. People have no ability to grow food up in the mountains, they have fled with whatever they can carry so there are grave fears.”