Papua rebels ambush Indonesian troops looking for kidnapped pilot

Armed separatists say they attacked soldiers as army was searching for a captured New Zealand pilot.

In this undated photo released by West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, Papuan separatist rebels pose for a photo with a man they said is New Zealander pilot Phillip Mark Mehrtens, third right, who they took hostage last week, at an undisclosed location in Papua province, Indonesia. Mehrtens, a pilot for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was abducted by the independence fighters who stormed his single-engine plane shortly after it landed on a small runway in Paro in remote Nduga district. (West Papua Liberation Army via AP)
In this undated photo released by the West Papua National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, Papuan separatist rebels are shown with a man they said is New Zealand pilot Phillip Mehrtens, third from right [File: West Papua National Liberation Army via AP]

Separatists in Indonesia’s Papua region say they have killed nine soldiers in an ambush, but the military says one soldier was killed during search operations to find a kidnapped New Zealand pilot.

Indonesian military spokesman Julius Widjojono said on Sunday that soldiers were dispersed to several sites in the search for captured Susi Air pilot Phillip Mehrtens and they were having communication difficulties due to bad weather.

Mehrtens was kidnapped by the rebels at an airport in the remote Nduga district in February.

“As of 2:03pm local time [05:03 GMT Sunday], the information we have is one died,” Widjojono said when asked about the higher casualty numbers. “We have not received any other information because it is difficult to reach the area, especially with the uncertain weather.”

Widjojono said the military will intensify the operation to rescue Mehrtens because they have identified the pilot’s location.

Erratic weather has made the effort challenging, he said.

Philip Mehrtens sitting on a log in the forest with the group of TPN-PB fighters who took him hostage in February, Thet have weapons and there are Papuan flags. The pictures was released in March.
A man identified as Phillip Mehrtens, the New Zealand pilot who is said to be held hostage by a pro-independence group, sits among separatist fighters in Indonesia’s Papua region [File: West Papua National Liberation Army/handout via Reuters]

The West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of Papua’s main separatist group, claimed responsibility for an attack on Saturday that they said killed nine soldiers.

The rebels had previously demanded that Indonesia recognise Papuan independence in return for the pilot’s release as well as a meeting with President Joko Widodo facilitated by the international community.

The separatists said Saturday’s attack was an act of defence against military activity in the region and demanded the government instead negotiate for Mehrtens’ release.

“The United Nations and the New Zealand government have an obligation to push Indonesia to stop the military operation,” rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said on Sunday.

Flying is the only way to reach mountainous areas in Papua, where rebel attacks have risen in recent years.

Papua’s Melanesian population shares few cultural connections with the rest of Indonesia, and the military has long been accused of human rights abuses there.

A former Dutch colony, Papua declared itself independent in 1961, but neighbouring Indonesia took control two years later, promising an independence referendum.

The subsequent vote in favour of staying part of Indonesia was widely considered a sham.

Source: News Agencies