Jakarta, Indonesia – At least six protesters and one military officer have been killed and several others including children wounded in West Papua after authorities clashed with demonstrators demanding independence, witnesses have said.
A source at one of the demonstrations on Wednesday in Papua province’s Deiyai regency said at least six Papuans were killed.
The witness, who requested anonymity for security reasons, also saw several people wounded by gunfire and demonstrators fleeing to the jungle for fear of being pursued by police and soldiers.
Suara Papua, the most widely read publication in the region, also reported the six protester deaths.
However, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Indonesian national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo denied that demonstrators were killed in Deiyai.
News website Kompas quoted Papua’s regional police chief, General Rudolf Rodja, as saying one military officer was killed and two police officers were injured during clashes with protesters.
Demonstrations have raged throughout West Papua for more than a week. The region is divided into two provinces, West Papua and Papua.
Because of an internet shutdown, Al Jazeera and other media organisations face difficulty in gathering and verifying news from the area.
Pastor Santon Tekege from Papua province’s Catholic Church attended the rally in Deiyai, alongside children, women, and elders.
He told Al Jazeera he witnessed Wednesday’s shooting in Deiyai, where the protesters earlier raised the banned pro-independence Morning Star flag.
Indonesia deploys troops to West Papua as protests spread
He said he saw bodies lying in front of the Deiyai regent’s office. It was unclear if the individuals were injured or dead.
Santon said the crowd of Papuan demonstrators first gathered on Wednesday morning at the Wagete district of Tigi, the capital city of Deiyai regency.
One of the protesters then handed over a statement to Deiyai’s regent, Ateng Edowai, stating their grievances against the government.
During the rally, Santon reported seeing a drone hovering over the crowd. Then the police and military started dispersing the protesters by firing tear gas.
As the crowd became agitated, the authorities then started shooting protesters, said Santon.
“I ran to the jungle to save myself,” he said. “Wagete is now empty. Everyone fled to the jungle including the wounded. The situation is very intense now.”
Yones Douw, a pastor from Kingmi Church in the neighbouring regency of Nabire, told Al Jazeera villagers from Deiyai reported to him they witnessed two children being shot and one died. It was unclear if the fatality was included in the six people reported killed.
Arnold Belau, chief editor of Suara Papua publication, also reported hearing gunshots while calling his source.
Meanwhile, human rights lawyer Veronica Koman said the military blocked the road to Deiyai from neighbouring Paniai regency, where thousands of demonstrators also marched on Wednesday.
Veronica told Al Jazeera mobile phone signals were disrupted in the area where the shooting took place.
Another source told Al Jazeera at least five soldiers and two civilians were being treated at the Paniai hospital after sustaining injuries during clashes in Deiyai.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, confirmed the shooting in Deiyai.
He called on the government and police to investigate “unlawful deaths”.
The ongoing protests in West Papua region first erupted last week after Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, reportedly faced mistreatment by police and were subjected to racial abuse.
Last week, the large demonstrations turned violent as thousands of protesters burned public facilities and blocked roads.
West Papua was a Dutch colony until the early 1960s when Indonesia took control, cementing its rule with a controversial referendum.
The government in Jakarta maintains the West Papua region, which occupies the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea, is Indonesia’s because it was part of the Dutch East Indies that forms the basis of the country’s modern-day borders.
A low-level armed rebellion by indigenous Papuans, who now make up about half the population after years of migration by people from other parts of Indonesia, has been rumbling ever since.
West Papua is the poorest region in the country and there have been allegations of human rights violations.
In December, violence also erupted in the province killing at least 17 people and triggering a military crackdown.
Some 35,000 civilians have been forced from their homes as security forces attempt to flush out the rebels from the forested mountains.