Wamena, Indonesia: Indonesian soldiers hunted Wednesday for rebels suspected of killing a group of construction workers in restive Papua province, as an eyewitness account supplied by the military described a grisly mass execution.
The survivor's account detailed the killing of at least 19 people, which if confirmed would mark the deadliest bout of violence in years to hit a region wracked for decades by a low-level independence insurgency.
Some 150 military personnel were focusing their operation at Nduga, where employees of state-owned contractor Istaka Karya were building bridges and roads as part of efforts to boost infrastructure in the impoverished region.
Some Papuans resent Indonesia's building efforts, saying it is a way to exert more control over a region that shares a border with Papua New Guinea, an independent island nation.
Four workers - including three suffering gunshot wounds - were among a dozen civilians who have been evacuated from the area so far.
"Today we are going to continue to evacuate any more victims and search for the perpetrators," said Papua military spokesman Muhammad Aidi.
On Wednesday, the military supplied an account from one survivor identified only 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 six workers and slit their throats, according to the uninjured witness, who said at least 19 employees had been killed in all.
Previous local media reports pegged the number of dead between 24 and 31, but authorities have yet confirm any killings.
AFP has confirmed with relatives that the witness worked for contractor Istaka Karya in the area where the killings allegedly took place, but his account of a massacre could not be independently verified.
Indonesia routinely blames separatists for violence in Papua and foreign media need permission to report there so obtaining reliable information is difficult.
The suspected killings came as more than 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 an independent nation on that date in 1961, but neighbouring Indonesia took control of the resource-rich region by force in 1963. It officially annexed Papua in 1969 with a UN-backed vote, widely seen as a sham.
Jakarta keeps a tight grip on Papua, which experienced several spasms of violence this summer including the killing of three local people, allegedly by rebels.
Much of the past violence, however, has involved skirmishes between rebel factions and Indonesian security forces.
The military has long been accused of rights abuses against Papua's ethnic Melanesian population including extrajudicial killings of activists and peaceful protestors.