efe-epaRicardo Perez-Solero Jakarta

Separatist guerrillas in the remote province of West Papua in Indonesia who killed at least 16 purported construction workers earlier this month have denied accusations that they are criminals, saying the deceased were actually Indonesian soldiers, claims which authorities in Jakarta have rejected.

At least 16 people, who Indonesia says were employees of the state construction company Istaka Karya, were executed by the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB) on Dec. 2.

"We are not criminals. We are freedom fighters. We carry out our own military fight against the Police and the Army that kills our people," Sebby Sambom, spokesperson for the TPNPB, told EFE.

On Dec. 1, a TPNPB commando allegedly kidnapped more than 20 workers with the state construction company Istaka Karya who, according to authorities, were building a bridge in the remote, mountainous Indonesian municipality of Nduga in Papua province. The rebels claim that they were state security personnel.

The next day, 16 of the kidnapees were executed in the bloodiest attack carried out in the country by separatist armed groups in recent years. Clashes between Indonesian security forces and rebels have been ongoing ever since.

The massacre has shined a spotlight on the hitherto often overlooked secessionist conflict that has raged for decades in Papua, a Christian-majority province in the world's most populous Muslim country.

The separatists want the independence of the provinces of West Papua and Papua on the western half of the island of New Guinea which were annexed by Jakarta after a contested UN-sponsored referendum in 1969, while the other half of the island belongs to Papua New Guinea.

The Nduga case has led to mixed reactions from other rebel groups, with some, such as the pacifist United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), echoing the TPNPB's claims of Indonesian propaganda, while others have condemned the killings, urging authorities to arrest those responsible.

"Executions in Nduga will not eliminate humanitarian crimes and serious human rights violations for 54 years" in Papua, Chairman of the Communion of Baptist Churches in Papua, Socrates Sofyan Yoman, said in a statement.

Between 2010 and 2018, Indonesian security forces killed 95 people, 85 of them indigenous, at pro-independence political events and social protests in the two restive Papuan provinces, without any of the cases being taken to civil courts, according to Amnesty International.

A journalist from local outlet Papuan Tabloid Jubi, Victor Mambor, told EFE that information on events in Papua comes almost exclusively from the security forces, which try to filter and discredit other sources while discriminating against indigenous journalists.

Although the Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, lifted the ban on journalists and international academics accessing Papua, those who access the area without permission continue to be detained and deported.

A researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Adriana Elisabeth, said that moderate young Papuans lack a space to express their views due to the separatist conflict and see their identity threatened.

A program that was abandoned in 2015 relocated people from Indonesia's most developed and populated islands, such as Java and Sumatra to the remote areas of the archipelago has meant that almost half of Papua's more than 3.5 million residents are not local.

Elisabeth told EFE that the arrival of Muslims, who constitute about 88 percent of the population of Indonesia, threatened the Christian majority Papua with "a serious problem of islamization".

She added that outsiders dominated the economic sector in an underdeveloped province that is rich in natural resources such as mining, oil and forests.

While Elisabeth advocates dialogue and reviewing the conditions of special autonomy enjoyed by the Papuan provinces, Widodo has promised that, in the aftermath of the Nduga killings, such a "barbaric act" would not halt Papua's development.