Papua rebels kill six troops on rescue mission for New Zealand pilot

Philip Mehrtens paraded by members of the West Papua National Liberation Army - Reuters
Philip Mehrtens paraded by members of the West Papua National Liberation Army - Reuters

At least six Indonesian troops are dead and 30 are missing after separatist gunmen attacked a unit searching for a kidnapped New Zealand pilot in a restive Papua province.

Phillip Mehrtens was taken hostage in February, when rebels stormed his single-engine plane shortly after he had landed in the remote, mountainous province of Nduga.

Two months later, a rescue attempt from the Indonesian army turned deadly over the weekend, when rebels attacked troops searching for the 37-year-old Susi Air pilot near a separatist stronghold.

The Indonesian military said that gunmen shot a soldier, who fell into a 15m-deep ravine. While the unit was recovering the body, separatists launched a second attack.

Heavy rain hampers search

While officials have confirmed only one fatality so far, army documents seen by the Associated Press put the toll at six - while rebels have claimed nine troops died during the clash. Around 30 others are missing, and many have reportedly fled into the jungle.

“It’s still unknown exactly how many Indonesian army troops died and were injured,” Col Herman Taryaman, a military spokesman, said. “We are still searching, but heavy rain, foggy weather and a lack of communication have hampered our search and evacuation efforts.”

Philip Mehrtens held hostage by Papua rebels - AP
Philip Mehrtens held hostage by Papua rebels - AP

In a statement, the West Papua National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack. They added that the ambush was an attempt to deter military efforts to recover Mr Mehrtens, and also revenge for the deaths of two rebels during a shootout with Indonesia’s military last month.

The group has been pushing for independence from Jakarta for decades, and said it targeted the pilot because of New Zealand’s cooperation with Indonesia. The rebels have insisted they will only release Mr Mehrtens when Papua gains self-rule.

“Indonesia’s government must stop its security operation in Papua and be willing to negotiate with our leaders under the mediation of a neutral third party from a United Nations agency,” Sebby Sambom, a rebel spokesman, said in a statement.

He added that his group had offered to negotiate with both Indonesia and New Zealand, but had not yet received a response from either government.

The message was similar to the ones presented in video footage of Mr Mehrtens sent to the BBC shortly after he was captured. In it, the pilot was wearing dark shorts, a denim jacket and a black T-shirt, and was surrounded by rebels armed with guns and bows and arrows.

He appeared to read a statement from the rebels repeating their demands, in a dispute dating back to Indonesia seizing control of the region in the Sixties.

The resource-rich region had been a Dutch colony until 1961, but was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised UN-sponsored referendum in 1969 - only around 1,000 Papuans took part in the vote.

An independence movement has been simmering ever since, but pro-independence fights have launched deadlier and more frequent attacks since 2018.

In September 2019, the region was gripped by riots fuelled by renewed calls for self-rule and by anger over reports of racist slurs and tear gas used against Papuan students in the Indonesian city of Surabaya. At least 59 people, more than half of them under-25, were reportedly killed in the unrest.

The separatists have previously insisted that they would treat Mr Mehrtens “humanely”, and he would be kept alive.

“If New Zealand and the Australian government don’t want to respond to our demands, we will not release him,” Mr Sambom said in February. “But he will stay with us and we will ask him for training for our young people training for flying.”