A military search team found the bodies of all 12 servicemen who were killed when their helicopter crashed in the mountains of Indonesia’s Papua province eight months ago, the army said Friday, amid insurgents’ claims that they shot it down.
The army pinpointed the wreckage of the Russian-made Mi-17 from the air Monday, photographing the debris field strewn along steep and rugged terrain at an elevation of 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) in Oskop district, after area residents had located the crash site.
The search team reached the site on Thursday after walking for five hours from their base camp in the Mandala mountain range, the military said in a statement. Twelve people, including the crew, were aboard the chopper that went missing in late June.
“Tomorrow (Saturday) we will start evacuating the remains. The team will carry them to a location that can be reached by our helicopter,” the head of the search team, Col. Binsar Panjaitan, said in the statement, adding that bad weather on Friday hampered an immediate evacuation of the bodies.
The army helicopter lost radio contact with ground control minutes after taking off on a flight to carry supplies and troops from Oksibil district in Pegunungan Bintang regency to Sentani, near the provincial capital Jayapura, on June 28, 2019.
Military officials said the cause of the crash was still not yet known, while declining to comment on recent claims by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) separatist rebel group that they had downed the big helicopter.
Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the rebels, told reporters earlier that they found the chopper’s wreckage on Feb. 4 and their forces had seized weapons from the crash site.
Dax Sianturi, a commander and spokesman for the Indonesian military in Papua, on Friday denied the rebels’ claims that they had looted weapons from among the dead soldiers.
“According to information from local figures, the weapons are mostly likely being kept by villagers in a nearby village not far from the crash site,” Sianturi told BenarNews via a text message.
Nine of the bodies of the dozen dead soldiers were identified by the nametags on their uniforms, Sianturi said, according to the Associated Press.
In other news out of Papua, a military tribunal this week sentenced an Indonesian soldier to life in prison after convicting him on charges of selling ammunition to the rebels.
The army serviceman, Wahyu Insyafiadi, received the sentence for selling 2,600 pieces of ammo, including bullets, to the rebel side, Agence France-Presse reported Friday.
Two other military personnel received jail sentences of 15 years and 30 months, respectively, for their roles in the ammunition sales, according to AFP.
The Papua region, which makes up the Indonesian half of New Guinea island, was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969, after a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only 1,000 people.
The Papua region, as it is known, has since been the scene of a low-level separatist insurgency. The region at the far eastern end of Indonesia is made up of Papua and West Papua provinces.
Air transport is vital in the largely jungle-clad region due to its limited road networks.