A manhunt is under way after a group of sword and gun-wielding attackers killed four people in a remote part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, including one who was beheaded and one burned to death.
The ambush took place in Lembantongoa village in Central Sulawesi province on Friday morning. Authorities said the victims were members of a Christian community but a police official said the assault was not religiously motivated. The attackers also torched half a dozen homes, including one used for regular prayers and services, police said.
Police were hunting the suspects on Saturday and no arrests have yet been made.
Authorities blamed Sulawesi-based East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), one of the groups across the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation that have pledged allegiance to ISIL (ISIS).
“We reached the conclusion that they (the attackers) were from MIT after showing pictures of its members to relatives 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 early morning assault, he added.
“People were just in their homes when it happened,” Priyahutama said.
Lembantongoa village head Rifai, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said one victim was beheaded and another was nearly decapitated.
“Some residents managed to escape, but the victims didn’t make it,” 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.
According to witness reports, the perpetrators had asked for food from the victims who were killed when they refused, national police spokesman Awi Setiyono told the Reuters news agency, denying that the attacks were religiously motivated.
“We’re on the ground now, there’s about 100 people who will start chasing,” he told the news channel, Metro TV.
The investigation, led by the Indonesian police and the military, may run into hurdles as the incident took place in a hilly, remote village near the region of Sigi, he said.
Gomar Gultom, the head of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, said the victims were Christian and urged the authorities to resolve the case.
The Salvation Army church in Indonesia said the victims were their members and condemned the violence as “an inhuman act”.
“We would like to express our sorrow and condolences to the deceased’s families and members of the congregation who were affected,” the Salvation Army said in a statement.
Indonesia’s Christians have been targeted in the past, including in 2018 when ISIL-linked group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah staged a wave of suicide bombings by families – including young children – at churches in the country’s second-biggest city Surabaya, killing a dozen congregants.
If confirmed to be the work of MIT, Friday’s killings would be its first significant attack since the organisation’s leader was killed four years ago by Indonesia’s elite anti-terror squad, according to Jakarta-based expert Sidney Jones.
“Through the attack … they want to show that police efforts to arrest and kill members of the group did not have any effect on” them, she told AFP.
In 2018, MIT was believed to have sent members posing as humanitarian workers into Central Sulawesi’s quake-tsunami hit Palu city in a bid to recruit new members, Jones said.