A manhunt is underway after a group of attackers with sword and weapons killed four people in a remote part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, including one who was beheaded and another burned.
The ambush took place in the village of Lembantongoa in Central Sulawesi province on Friday morning. Authorities said the victims were members of a Christian community, but a police officer said the assault was not for religious reasons. The attackers also set fire to half a dozen houses, including one used for prayers and regular services, police said.
Police were searching for the suspects Saturday and no arrests have been made.
Authorities blamed the Sulawesi-based East Indonesian Mujahideen (MIT), one of the groups in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation that has pledged allegiance to ISIL (ISIS).
“We concluded that they (the attackers) were from MIT after showing photographs of their members to the families of the victims” who witnessed the ambush, said Yoga Priyahutama, Sigi Regency police chief.
The makeshift church that was attacked was empty at the time of the morning raid, he added.
“People were in their houses when it happened,” Priyahutama said.
Lembantongoa village chief Rifai, who like many Indonesians has a name, said one victim was beheaded and another nearly beheaded.
“Some neighbors managed to escape, but the victims did not,” Rifai told the AFP news agency.
One of the other male victims was stabbed while a fourth was burned to death in his home, he added.
Police hunting suspects
According to eyewitness reports, the perpetrators had requested food from victims who died when they refused, national police spokesman Awi Setiyono told Reuters news agency, denying that the attacks were religiously motivated.
“We are on the ground now, there are about 100 people who will start to persecute,” he told the Metro TV news channel.
The investigation, led by the Indonesian police and military, may run into obstacles as the incident took place in a remote, mountainous village near the Sigi region, he said.
Gomar Gultom, the head of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, said the victims were Christians and urged authorities to solve the case.
The Salvation Army church in Indonesia said the victims were its members and condemned the violence as “an inhumane act.”
“We would like to express our sorrow and condolences to the families of the deceased and members of the congregation who were affected,” the Salvation Army said in a statement.
Indonesian Christians have been targeted in the past, including in 2018 when the ISIL-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah organized a wave of suicide bombings by families, including young children, on churches in the second city. largest in the country, Surabaya, and killed a dozen parishioners.
If confirmed to be the work of MIT, Friday’s killings would be its first significant attack since the organization’s leader was assassinated four years ago by Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism squad, according to Jakarta-based expert Sidney Jones.
“Through the attack … they want to show that the police efforts to arrest and kill members of the group had no effect on them,” he told AFP.
In 2018, MIT was believed to have sent members posing as humanitarian workers to the central Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami that hit the city of Palu in an attempt to recruit new members, Jones said.