JAKARTA: Indonesian police were on Saturday (Nov 28) searching for suspected militants accused of killing four people and burning seven houses in a village in Central Sulawesi province.
National Police spokesperson Awi Setiyono said they believe Friday's assault in Lemban Tongoa village of Sigi District was carried out by the Sulawesi-based East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group.
It is one of dozens of radical groups across the Southeast Asian archipelago that have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
The police spokesperson quoted a witness who said that militants beheaded one victim and slit the throats of the others.
Ahmad Rifai, a Lemban Tongoa village officer, said that one of the buildings burned was a Christian house of worship.
"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 Sigi Regency police chief Yoga Priyahutama.
The makeshift church was empty at the time of the early morning attack by around eight militants, he added.
"People were just in their homes when it happened," Priyahutama said.
No arrests have yet been made and the motive for the attack was not immediately clear.
Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim-majority country, has long wrestled with militancy and terror attacks, while Central Sulawesi has seen intermittent violence between Christians and Muslims for decades.
"This attack is another serious escalation against the Christian minority in Indonesia," Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono told Reuters.
Gomar Gultom, the head of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, told Reuters the victims were Christian and urged the authorities to resolve the case.
International Christian Concern, a Washington-based advocacy group, posted on its website on Friday that "an alleged terrorist" killed four Christians in the Sulawesi village, burning down a Salvation Army post and Christian homes.
The investigation into Friday's killing, led by the Indonesian police and the military, may run into hurdles as the incident took place in a hilly, remote village, police spokesperson Setiyono said.
"We're on the ground now, there's about 100 people who will start chasing," he added.
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 terrorism 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 said.
In 2018, MIT was believed to have sent radicals posing as humanitarian workers into Central Sulawesi's quake-tsunami hit Palu city in a bid to recruit new members, Jones said.