Gunmen in the remote Indonesian province of Papua have killed as many as 31 construction workers who were brought from a distant island to help build a major highway, officials said Tuesday.
The police attributed the attacks to separatists who have long pushed for an independent Papua, The Associated Press reported. But there were few details of the killings, which were said to have begun on Sunday with the shooting of 24 workers.
Indonesia’s public works minister, Basuki Hadimuljono, told reporters on Tuesday that work on the highway would be halted while the authorities investigated the killings in the district of Nduga, a mountainous area near the center of the province.
Police officers and soldiers were attempting to reach the area where the attacks were reported to have occurred.
Papua, which shares the island of New Guinea with the country Papua New Guinea, is a vast, largely inaccessible region with huge oil, mineral and timber resources.
Papua declared independence in 1961 but was annexed by Indonesia in 1969 following a vote of tribal representatives that was widely seen as illegitimate.
For years, the Free Papua Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym O.P.M., has operated a low-level insurgency in the province.
Bobby Anderson, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London with years of experience in Papua, said that the separatists were not particularly active in the Nduga area, where clan violence is common.
He said locals seeking to extort money often target construction workers, who are seen as outsiders.
“Nduga is known for its clan violence, but the O.P.M. factions there are quiet relative to factions in other parts of the highlands,” he said. “If these killings were committed by an O.P.M. faction, then it’s unprecedented in terms of sheer numbers.”
Situated on the eastern edge of Indonesia, Papua is the country’s largest province, but it ranks lowest on the Human Development Index, a measure of life expectancy, education and income.
Foreign journalists need special permission to enter the province, and it is rarely granted.
The province is home to the Grasberg mine, the world’s largest gold mine, which has long been run by the American company Freeport-McMoRan. After years of pressure from Indonesia, the company is in the process of selling a controlling interest in the mine to a state-run company.
Officials said most of the construction workers were brought from the island of Sulawesi — the recent scene of a deadly earthquake and tsunami — to build bridges that are part of the trans-Papuan highway.
Until 2015, Indonesia had a program of moving settlers from crowded parts of the country to less populated areas, a policy that helped consolidate political control. That led to clashes in some locations, most notably the slaughter of hundreds of Madurese settlers by Dayak headhunters on the island of Borneo in the early 2000s.