JAIPURA, Indonesia (AP) – Indonesian security forces have recovered the bodies of four government soldiers killed in a separatist attack while searching for a New Zealand pilot held hostage by rebels in Indonesia’s Papua region. during, officials said Thursday.
Four soldiers from the elite army were killed on Saturday after attackers from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, ambushed 36 government soldiers in the Nduga district of the mountainous province of Papua Highlands.
The Papuan army said security forces found the bodies on Wednesday, including a soldier who fell into a 15-meter-deep trench, and took them to a hospital in the mining town of Temika in neighboring Central Papua province. Transferred, according to the Papuan army. Spokesperson Colonel Harman Triyaman.
Triaman said the rebels had ambushed the troops while they were looking for New Zealand pilot Philip Mark Mehrtens, who had been kidnapped by the rebels in February. He added that the insurgents shot a soldier who fell into a ditch, and launched another attack when the soldiers tried to retrieve the body.
Security forces are searching for a fifth soldier who is still missing, but bad weather conditions and forested terrain have hampered their search and evacuation operations, Triyaman said.
Security forces recovered the bodies of four soldiers on Tuesday, a day after Indonesia’s military chief denied a separatist group’s claim that it had killed more than a dozen government soldiers in an attack.
Admiral Yudo Margono confirmed only one death and said four other soldiers were missing. He said the rest returned to their posts. Five soldiers were injured and are in stable condition and have been transferred to a hospital in Tameka.
Rebel spokesman Sibi Sambom said in a statement Monday that his group’s fighters held the remains of 12 soldiers, including nine he said had been “captured and executed”. The rebels did not provide any evidence to support their statement.
Sambom said the insurgents had previously carried out the attack in retaliation for Indonesia’s “major military operation” in Papua and the death of two insurgents in a shootout with security forces last month.
Margono dismissed the rebels’ claims as “fake news” and said military operations in Papua were launched with the aim of minimizing casualties. However, he said authorities would step up pressure on the rebels around several separatist strongholds, including in Nduga.
Rebels attacked the single-engine plane shortly after it landed on a short runway in Paro in February and kidnapped the pilot. The plane was initially supposed to carry 15 construction workers from other Indonesian islands after receiving death threats from insurgents.
Margono said authorities will continue to prioritize a peaceful process for Mehrtens’ release.
The pilot’s kidnapping was the second by the freedom fighters since 1996, when the rebels kidnapped 26 members of a World Wildlife Fund fact-finding mission in Mapendoma. Two Indonesians in the group were killed by their captors, but the remaining hostages were eventually released within five months.
The pilot’s kidnapping reflects the deteriorating security situation in Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost region, a former Dutch colony in western New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally separate from much of Indonesia.
Papua was annexed to Indonesia in 1969, following a UN-sponsored vote that was widely regarded as fraudulent. Since then, a popular uprising has erupted in the region, which was divided into five provinces last year to promote the development of Indonesia’s poorest region.
Saturday’s fighting is the latest in a series of violent incidents in recent years in Papua, where clashes between local Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common.
Insurgent attacks have increased significantly in recent years as the government expands infrastructure and the controversial Trans-Papua Highway, a road being built through the highlands of Papua that has fueled resistance. Many indigenous Papuans see these movements as a threat to their identity and traditional way of life, prompting attacks by separatist groups, followed by further deployment of the Indonesian military.
Military activity in Papua has raised concerns among human rights groups, who say the security approach Jakarta has taken for decades has failed to address violence in the region.
Amnesty International Indonesia called for dialogue with the separatists to prevent possible human rights violations and a major humanitarian crisis. Figures collected by the rights group show that between 2018 and 2022, at least 179 civilians, 35 Indonesian soldiers and nine police officers, along with 23 freedom fighters, have been killed in clashes between rebels and security forces.
Karmani reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.
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