Indonesia dismisses rebel claim of army deaths in Papua


Jakarta (AP) — Indonesia’s military chief on Tuesday dismissed a separatist group claim that they had killed more than a dozen government soldiers who were searching for a New Zealand pilot taken hostage by the rebels in the restive Papua region.

Adm. Yudo Margono and the military’s top brass flew to the region on Monday after initial information said attackers from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, ambushed 36 government soldiers in the hilly district of Nduga in mountainous Papua Highlands province.

Rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said in a statement on Monday that his group’s fighters were holding the remains of 12 soldiers, including nine who he said “were arrested and executed.” The rebels offered no proof to back up their statement.

Margono confirmed only one fatality and said four other soldiers were missing. The rest returned to their post, he said. Five were wounded and were in stable condition and evacuated to a hospital in Timika, a mining city in neighboring Central Papua province.

“I’m here to find out directly and accurately from our troops on the ground about the exact situation, so that we can evaluate our (rescue) mission for the pilot,” Margono told a news conference in Timika.

The soldiers were part of a group searching for Phillip Mark Mehrtens, a New Zealand pilot for the Indonesian aviation company Susi Air who was abducted by the rebels in February.

Margono said that soldiers who survived the shootout told him the rebels had used civilians including women and children as a human shield during the assault, making the troops hesitant to return fire and resulting in them being cornered.

“I really regret that,” Margono said. “They have used methods that should not be done in a war.”

Sambom said in an earlier statement that the rebels carried out the attack in retaliation against Indonesia’s “massive military operation” in Papua and the killings of two rebels in a shootout with security forces last month.

Margono rejected the rebel claims as “fake news” and said the military operations in Papua were launched with a view to keep casualties at a minimum. However, he said that authorities will increase pressure on the rebels around several separatist strongholds, including in Nduga.

The military activities in Papua have raised concern among rights group who say the security approach that had been implemented by Jakarta for decades has proven unable to resolve violence in the region.

Amnesty International Indonesia called for prioritizing dialogue with the separatists to prevent potential human rights violations and a larger humanitarian crisis.

“This will not only increase the risk to the safety of civilians there, but also the New Zealand’s pilot who is still being held hostage,” said Usman Hamid, the executive director of the group.

The rebels in February stormed a single-engine plane shortly after it landed on a small runway in Paro and abducted its pilot. The plane initially was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers who had been building a health center after the rebels threatened to kill them.

Authorities will continue to prioritize a peaceful approach for the release of Mehrtens, Margono said.

The fighting is the latest in a series of violent incidents in recent years in Papua, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia. Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common.

Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969, after a U.N.-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the region, which is divided into five provinces since last year to boost development in Indonesia’s poorest region.

Rebel attacks have spiked in recent years, with dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed.

Data collected by Amnesty International Indonesia showed at least 179 civilians, 35 Indonesian troops and 9 police as well as 23 independence fighters were killed in clashes between rebels and security forces between 2018 and 2022.

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