More than two dozen people have died in riots in Indonesia’s restive Papua region, authorities said Tuesday, as thousands fled to shelters following violence that saw civilians burned alive in buildings set ablaze by protesters.

Papua, on the western half of New Guinea island, has been paralyzed by weeks of protests fueled by anger over racism, as well as fresh calls for self-rule in the impoverished territory.

Some 26 people died in Wamena city where hundreds had demonstrated and burned down a government office and other buildings on Monday, authorities said, adding that some perished in deliberately set fires.

Most victims were non-Papuans, authorities said, threatening an escalation in violence against migrants from other parts of the Southeast Asian archipelago.

A soldier and three civilians also died in the provincial capital Jayapura, where security forces and stone-throwing protesters clashed Monday.

The soldier was stabbed to death, while three students died from rubber bullet wounds, authorities said, without elaborating.

More than 70 people were injured and some 700 rounded up for questioning. Several hundred were later released.

“Some were burned, some were hacked to death… some were trapped in fires,” local military commander Chandra Dianto told AFP.

“(We’re) going to scour the debris to look for more possible victims in shops and stalls that were set on fire,” he added.

More than 4,000 residents, including mothers and their children, fled to military and police posts, government buildings and a local church to seek shelter, according to authorities.

“There are many women and elderly people, mostly migrants,” said Yudi, an Indonesian businessman and Wamena resident, who was staying at a local shelter after his wife left Papua for security reasons Tuesday.

“There are local Papuans who helped protect migrants by hiding them in their homes, but when word got out their houses were also targeted.

“Wamena is destroyed,” he added.

The majority of Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia, and most previous clashes have been separatists and Indonesian security forces.

One Papua expert threw cold water on the idea that migrants may have been targeted, however.

“I doubt… that this was intentional, or at least planned,” Damien Kingsbury, a professor of international politics at Australia’s Deakin University.

“If it has happened it is more likely a by-product of burning” buildings, he added.

Monday’s protests in Wamena — mostly involving high-schoolers — were reportedly sparked by racist comments made by a teacher, but police have disputed that account as a hoax.

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua, which is pushing for independence, described Monday’s violence as a “massacre” and said that 17 Papuan high school students had been gunned down by Indonesian security forces.

Neither the military nor the independence movement’s claims could be independently verified. Conflicting accounts are common in Papua.

AFP reporters in Papua said it appeared that the government had renewed a region-wide Internet service shutdown.

Jakarta has said the latest riots were meant to draw attention to Papuan independence at this week’s UN General Assembly.

A low-level separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in the former Dutch colony after Jakarta took over the mineral-rich region in the 1960s. A US-sponsored vote to stay within the archipelago was widely viewed as rigged.

Despite a push to develop its infrastructure, many Papuans say they’re treated like second-class citizens and have not received a fair share of vast mineral wealth in a region home to the world’s biggest gold mine.

Weeks of protests broke out across Papua and in other parts of Indonesia after the mid-August arrest and tear-gassing of dozens of Papuan students, who were also racially abused, in the country’s second-biggest city, Surabaya.

© Agence France-Presse