Rival ethnic tribes in Indonesia’s West Papua province clashed in the early morning hours of Tuesday, sparking a nightclub fire that burned 17 people “alive,” BenarNews reported, adding that an 18th victim died from stab wounds sustained in the fighting.
The incident began just before dawn on January 25 in the West Papua port city of Sorong after “members of the Pelauw tribe attacked and killed a 20-year-old ethnic Kei man in Sorong,” BenarNews reported, citing local police and officials.
“Friends of the victim immediately chased the perpetrators, to retaliate,” Sorong Police Chief Ary Nyoto Setiawan said on Tuesday, adding that the vengeful group ended their chase near a local karaoke club.
“Clashes broke out. The mob burned down the karaoke place, and two vehicles,” he said.
Rival members of the “warring” tribes wielded machetes while slinging arrows and Molotov cocktails at each other during the violent episode, Indonesian National Police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan told reporters on January 25.
“[The] investigation into this case is still ongoing to identify the perpetrators, including the masterminds from the two warring groups,” Ramadhan said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
Setiawan described the altercation as “a prolonged conflict from a clash on Saturday [January 22],” in a statement shared with media outlets on January 25. The Sorong police chief further revealed the suspects in the brawl “were not ethnic Papuans.”
Approximately 50 percent of West Papua’s population is comprised of people “who moved there from other islands,” according to BenarNews, an Asian news service affiliated with the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia. Tuesday morning’s clash specifically involved members of ethnic groups from the Maluku Islands, an archipelago in eastern Indonesia directly west of the province of West Papua. The Maluku Islands capital of Ambon is located roughly one hour by ferry from Sorong.
The ethnic conflict in Sorong on January 25 “did not involve locals from remote West Papua, where there is a long-running insurgency,” the Indonesian National Police clarified on Tuesday, referring to an often violent separatist movement in Indonesia’s easternmost regions that launched in the 1960s.
Setiawan said his local police force had attempted to quell tensions between the opposing Maluku Island tribes before their dispute caused a Sorong nightclub to burn down on Tuesday morning.
“We tried to mediate between the groups, as we called their leaders before last night’s clash,” the Sorong police chief told reporters on January 25.
Indonesian soldiers from a Sorong military base joined local police officers on January 25 to patrol the city’s streets in an effort to prevent further violence, BenarNews reported.