JAKARTA, Indonesia — Violent protests by hundreds of people on Monday touched off by rumors that a teacher insulted an indigenous student in the restive Indonesian province of Papua have left at least 20 civilians dead, including three who were shot by the police, officials said.
An angry mob torched local government buildings, shops and homes and set fire to cars and motorcycles on several roads leading to the district chief’s office in the city of Wamena, said the Papua police chief, Rudolf Alberth Rodja.
A spokesman for the Papua military, Eko Daryanto, said at least 16 civilians, including 13 from other Indonesian provinces, were killed in Wamena, mostly after they were trapped in burning houses or shops. He said at least one soldier and three civilians had died in another protest in Jayapura, the provincial capital.
About 65 civilians were injured in Wamena and five police officers were critically injured in Jayapura, he said.
Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished Papua region, a former Dutch colony in the western half of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia.
Television images showed orange flames and black smoke billowing from burning buildings in Wamena, and videos that circulated on the internet showed dozens of people, many armed with machetes, standing in front of shops and homes to protect them from the angry mob.
Chief Rodja said the unrest was precipitated by rumors that a high school teacher in Wamena, who is not from Papua, called an indigenous student a “monkey” last week.
He said a police investigation did not find any evidence of racism against the student, and he added that false rumors have been created and spread in other schools and indigenous communities with the intention of causing violent unrest.
“This is a hoax, and I call on people in Papua not to be provoked by untrue news,” Chief Rodja told reporters in Jayapura, the capital of Papua Province.
Mr. Daryanto said that a mob of angry students attacked a soldier and several police officers in Jayapura with machetes and rocks, and that security forces responded with gunfire, killing three civilians. The soldier died on the way to a hospital. At least five police officers were in critical condition.
Joko Harjani, an airport official, said the protest forced the authorities to close the city’s airport until the situation returns to normal.
The demonstration came days after the Indonesian authorities managed to bring the province under control after weeks of violent protests by thousands of people in Papua and West Papua provinces who had complained of racism toward Papuans. At least one Indonesian soldier and four civilians were killed in that violence.
The previous protests were set off by videos circulated on the internet that showed security forces calling Papuan students “monkeys” and “dogs” in the East Java city of Surabaya, as they stormed a university dormitory where Papuan students were staying after a torn Indonesian flag was found in a sewer.
The videos prompted hundreds of Papuans who study in other Indonesian provinces to return home, forcing a local state university to accommodate them.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.
In recent years, some Papua students, including those who study in other provinces, have called for self-determination for their region.
New York Times – A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 24, 2019, Section A, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: At Least 20 Found Dead Amid Riots In Indonesia. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe