An Indonesian soldier was killed while investigating reports that more than two dozen construction workers were shot dead by separatist rebels in restive Papua province, officials said today.
If the killings are confirmed, they would mark the deadliest bout of violence in years to hit a region that has seen a low-level independence insurgency simmer for decades.
Citing a local police officer, Indonesian media reported late Monday that the workers were shot dead on Sunday in Nduga, a district in the centre of the far-flung region on the western half of New Guinea island, just north of Australia.
Police and military teams were sent to the area on Monday when they came under rebel gunfire with one soldier killed and another wounded in the firefight, authorities said.
The employees of state-owned contractor Istaka Karya were building bridges and roads as part of efforts to boost infrastructure in the impoverished region, Indonesia's public workers minister Budi Hadimuljono said today.
All work in the area has been halted pending the investigation, he added.
"We're shocked and saddened to hear the media reports," the minister told reporters in Jakarta.
"All work is going to be suspended (in the area) given this incident," he added.
More than a dozen coffins were being readied in Wamena, the nearest major town to where killings allegedly happened.
"Some media are saying 31 workers are dead, some 24, so we really need to check ourselves," said Papua military spokesman Muhammad Aidi.
'Chase These Criminals'
The alleged killings were reportedly carried out by rebels who have long fought against Jakarta's rule. Indonesia routinely blames separatists for violence in Papua.
Foreign media need permission to report from Papua and obtaining reliable information is difficult.
Some workers reportedly managed to escape the shootings, which were allegedly sparked by separatists angry at some workers who were taking pictures of a pro-Papua independence activities.
Authorities would "chase these criminals wherever they are", national police spokesman Muhamad Iqbal said.
"But we need to check whether it was really (the rebels) or not," he added.
The alleged killings come 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 should be the anniversary of their independence from the Dutch.
Papua declared itself an independent nation on that date in 1961, but neighbouring Indonesia took control of the 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 the resource-rich region, which experienced several outbreaks of violence this summer including the killing of three local people, allegedly by rebels.
The deaths followed a gunfight that saw a small plane carrying 15 police officers -- sent to oversee the local elections -- shot at as it landed at Nduga.
Some of the violence has been centred on protests against 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 rich resources.
In April, an Indonesian soldier and at least one rebel were killed near the mine.
In August, authorities arrested Pole Jakub Skrzypski in Papua for alleged links to separatists and he could face life in prison if convicted. His trial date has not yet been set.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)