The Indonesian army has pinpointed the wreckage of a helicopter that went missing in Papua province almost eight months ago with 12 people on board, a general said on Monday, as officials declined to comment on claims that insurgents had shot it down.
The Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter lost contact minutes after takeoff on June 28, 2019 while carrying supplies and troops from Oksibil district in Pegunungan Bintang Regency to Sentani, near the provincial capital Jayapura.
“I saw firsthand the location of debris from a height of 12,500 feet,” Papuan military commander Maj. Gen. Herman Asaribab said in a statement.
The military, which said the cause of the helicopter crash was not yet known, resumed the search last week after receiving reports that local residents had found the wreckage in Oksop village in Oksibil.
Herman said the military had yet to retrieve the remains of all of the victims – 12 military personnel, including five border security forces – because of difficult terrain and changing weather conditions.
“Next, we will focus on evacuating the [remains]. Evacuation must be prepared carefully considering the location of debris is on a cliff with an angle of almost 90 degrees,” Herman said.
Authorities had deployed more than 1,000 personnel to look for the helicopter.
Maj. Gen. Sisriadi, spokesman of the National Armed Forces, declined to comment on claims by the separatist West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) that it had shot down the helicopter.
“We focus on evacuating the fallen warriors first. For the cause, later it can be known when the [helicopter debris] have been collected,” Sisriadi told BenarNews.
TPNPB spokesman Sebby Sambon earlier told reporters the group had shot down the helicopter and found its wreckage on Feb. 4.
Sambon also said that the rebels seized weapons found from the crash site.
“If the Indonesian security forces come to our area to take away weapons that TPNPB OPM has captured, we are ready to fight,” he said.
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 region has since been the scene of a low-level separatist insurgency.
News about allegations that security forces had treated the Papuan students harshly and hurled racist abuse at them ignited mass protests, some of which descended into violence that left more than 40 people dead in August and September.