West Papuan rebels claim 9 soldiers killed in Jakarta bid to free NZ pilot

Indonesian military and police personnel surround a helicopter in Kenyam district, Nduga regency, Papua Highlands, in February
Indonesian military and police personnel surround a helicopter in Kenyam district, Nduga regency, Papua Highlands, in February . . . the chopper was used to evacuate 15 people who had been held hostage by an armed group seeking independence. Image: Indonesian military/Cenderawasih Military Command/JP

RNZ Pacific

West Papuan rebels seeking independence in the Indonesian-ruled Melanesian region claim to have killed nine soldiers after Jakarta did not respond to a request to negotiate the return of hostage New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens.

But the military said one soldier died during the attack on Saturday.

Indonesian military spokesperson Rear Admiral Julius Widjojono said yesterday other soldiers were dispersed to several sites in the search for captured Susi Air pilot Philip Mehrtens and they were having communication difficulties due to bad weather.

“As of 2.03pm (local time) the information we have is one died. We have not received any other information because it is difficult to reach the area, especially with the uncertain weather,” Admiral Widjojono said when asked about the higher casualty numbers.

The Jakarta Post reports that at least one soldier has been killed in the Papuan Highlands on Saturday during a clash with the rebel group.

The Post quoted Admiral Widjojono as saying that First Private Miftahul Arifin had been shot after he fell into a 15m deep ravine as other soldiers, who were trying to evacuate Miftahul, were reportedly stuck in the field and bombarded with bullets.

Admiral Widjojono said the military would intensify the operation to rescue Mehrtens as they hde identified the pilot’s location.

Erratic weather
Erratic weather had made the effort challenging, he said.

The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) abducted the New Zealand pilot on February 7. The group initially demanded Jakarta recognise the Papua region’s independence but told news agencies this month they were prepared to drop that demand and seek dialogue.

“We asked the Indonesian and New Zealand governments to free the hostages through peaceful negotiations,” rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said in a recorded message on Sunday.

“But the Indonesian military and police attacked civilians on March 23. Because of that the TPNPB troops said they would take revenge and it had already started,” Sambom said, adding that fighting was continuing on Sunday.

A military spokesperson in Papua, Herman Taryaman, denied the allegation of a March attack on civilians, saying the security forces were protecting civilians who were chased away by the rebels.

A low-level struggle for independence from Indonesia has been going on for decades in the remote and resource-rich Papua region, with the conflict intensifying significantly in recent years, analysts say.

The conflict began after a contested 1969 vote supervised by the United Nations saw the former Dutch territory brought under Indonesian control.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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