Indonesian authorities shot dead six protesters during a violent clash in its unrest-wracked Papua region Wednesday, according to an eyewitness and a media report, but police disputed that account.
Local priest Santon Tekege said chaos erupted after several thousand people rallied in the remote district of Deiyai — following riots and demonstrations across the region last week when buildings were torched and street battles broke out between police and protesters.
In Deiyai, authorities fired tear gas to disperse the demonstration on Wednesday, sparking an angry response that saw a group of protesters attack a soldier, Tekege added.
The military then opened fire on the crowd, according to Tekege, who said he was at the rally.
“Six of them died,” he said, adding that several more demonstrators were injured and sent to hospital.
A report on the local news website Suarapapua.com earlier Wednesday also said six demonstrators were gunned down.
The deaths could not be independently verified and authorities disputed the number of deaths.
Papua police spokesman Ahmad Mustofa Kamal said Wednesday that two protesters had died, one from a bullet wound and another who was shot in the stomach by an arrow — and suggested the deaths might be the fault of demonstrators.
“The protesters shot arrows and threw rocks at our officers,” he told AFP.
“We even heard gunshots coming from their direction so that is why we shot back,” Kamal added.
Earlier Wednesday, Indonesia”s military — long accused of committing rights abuses against Papuans during a decades-long separatist insurgency — said a soldier had been killed and several more were injured by Papuans armed with machetes and bows and arrows.
About 150 protesters had descended on Deiyai”s government office, demanding that the district head sign an agreement to hold a referendum on Papuan independence, said national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo.
Conflicting accounts are common in Papua, a resource-rich but impoverished island that shares a border with Papua New Guinea.
The recent riots appear to have been triggered by the arrest this month of dozens of Papuan students in Java, who were also pelted with racist abuse.
Police in riot gear stormed a dormitory in the city of Surabaya to force out students accused of destroying an Indonesian flag, as a group of protesters shouted racial slurs at them, calling them “monkeys” and “dogs”.
Last week, the government moved to shut down internet services in the region, saying it was trying to stop a stream of offensive and racist online posts that it feared would spark more violent protests.
Critics slammed the move as a threat to free speech and journalists say it has made verifying information more difficult.
Indonesia sent in 1,200 extra police and military to Papua as tensions soared, while President Joko Widodo has offered to meet with Papuan leaders.
Jakarta took control of Papua, a former Dutch colony, in the 1960s after an independence referendum widely viewed as a sham.
Many Papuans — who are ethnic Melanesian and have few cultural ties with the rest of Indonesia — say they have not gotten a fair share of vast mineral wealth in the region, which is home to the world”s biggest gold mine.