Timika, Indonesia: Construction workers massacred at a remote jungle work camp in Papua were legitimate military targets, a rebel group said Friday, as authorities hunted for more bodies after the grisly weekend attack which killed at least 16.
The National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB) has claimed responsiblity for the deadliest bout of violence in years to hit Papua, an Indonesian-controlled region wracked by a low-level independence insurgency.
"(We killed them) because they were members of the Indonesian military in disguise. They're our enemy," Sebby Sambom, spokesman for the TPNPB, told AFP.
"This is war. It's kill or be killed," he added.
The rebel group said this week it had killed two dozen people working for a state-owned contractor, while Indonesia's military has confirmed 16 dead and said at least three more company workers were unaccounted for.
An earlier eyewitness account supplied by the military described execution-style shootings and rebels slitting the throats of workers who tried to escape.
On Friday, the military said most of the victims' hands were tied together with some suffering gunshot or knife wounds and blunt-force injuries. One worker was almost decapitated.
Authorities said they were scouring the jungle in search of more victims and the suspects, who could number as many as 50.
"There are around 40 to 50 of them scattered around various places," Papua military spokesman Dax Sianturi told AFP.
"They have the support of locals."
The contractor's employees were helping build bridges and roads to boost infrastructure in the impoverished region.
Some in Papua view Indonesia as a colonial occupier and its building work as a way to exert more control over the resource-rich island region which shares a border with Papua New Guinea (PNG), just north of Australia.
"We want to be like PNG - independent," the rebel spokesman said.
The attack on Sunday came as about 500 activists 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 region two years later on the condition it hold an independence referendum.
Jakarta annexed Papua in 1969 with a UN-backed vote that was widely seen as a sham.
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.