RIAU, Indonesia – Indonesian police said they were detaining scores of peasants Thursday after rights groups accused authorities of torching a village by helicopter and killing two children in a decade-old land dispute.
Zulkifli, a police spokesman with one name, said 79 villagers were being detained for illegal weapons possession and squatting on forest land that had been granted to a local pulp supplier.
Some 600 people from Suluk Bongkal, a remote village in Riau province in northwestern Indonesia, were driven out on Dec. 18 by around 500 police, local security forces and civilian guards, environmental group Walhi and Amnesty International said in statements Wednesday.
Two helicopters dropped flammable chemicals onto 300 homes and police fired bullets and tear gas, witnesses told the groups.
The witnesses said one infant burned to death and a 2-year-old fell down a well and died during the operation. Two other people suffered gunshot wounds, the rights groups said.
Zulkifli acknowledged police burned "huts," but denied the deaths were related to evictions sought by the company.
"They were not killed directly in the confrontation," Zulkifli said.
He said the huts were built with illegal timber, while the company had a license to develop the land. However, Berry Nahdian Forqan, the executive director of Walhi, Indonesia's largest environmental group, accused police of torching the village.
"We have witnesses — five villagers and local environmentalist — who said they have evidence (video and pictures) showing the helicopters took part in the eviction," said Forqan.
The footage, viewed by an Associated Press reporter, appeared to show two helicopters — one police and one private — dropping a liquid that set the houses on fire.
Zulkifli denied the charge, saying "it would not have been possible for the helicopters to fly with such dangerous materials."
The land dispute stems back to 1997 when the Forestry Ministry gave the company a 300,000-hectare concession in the area, which included village land.
Hundreds of villagers fled to nearby forests and the disputed area is now patrolled by police, Walhi said. The villagers said they were not compensated for their property.