Indonesia updates death toll of soldiers to 4 in Papua weekend ambush

Pizaro Gozali Idrus and Dandy Koswaraputra
Indonesia updates death toll of soldiers to 4 in Papua weekend ambush Indonesia Military Chief Adm. Yudo Margono (center) speaks during a press conference at a naval aviation base in Sidoarjo, East Java, April 18, 2023.
Juni Kriswanto/AFP

The Indonesian military has updated to four the death toll of soldiers in last weekend’s ambush by Papuan separatist rebels, adding that one serviceman was still missing.

The military on Wednesday recovered the bodies of the soldiers killed in the operation to rescue a New Zealand pilot held captive since February by rebels in Nduga regency, said Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono, spokesman for the Indonesian Armed Forces.

“The remains of the four soldiers have been flown out,” Julius told BenarNews on Thursday.

Military officials initially said one soldier was killed when a 36-member unit was ambushed by armed rebels looking for pilot Philip Mehrtens on Saturday. 

Julius said the military would continue its operation to free Mehrtens, who works for Susi Air, a local airline operating in remote areas of Indonesia.

Meanwhile, West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) spokesman Sebby Sambom said  Mehrtens was “safe and in good health” on Thursday.

He warned that the guerillas had the upper hand in jungle fighting because they know the terrain.

“We control the territory. The TNI [Indonesian Armed Forces] will not succeed,” he told BenarNews.

The fallout from the ambush prompted the Indonesian military’s top brass, including commander Adm. Yudo Margono, to travel to the region this week to review the operation.

In Papua on Tuesday, Yudo warned that the military would do away with its “soft approach” in dealing with the rebel group, which has been seeking independence from Indonesia since the 1960s.

“We will increase our ground combat alert operation, from soft approach to combat alert, to boost our combat instinct,” he said.

He also said soldiers who had been stationed in the region for more than a year would be rotated out because of the stress they faced. 

The TPNPB has threatened to carry out more attacks if the government refused to hold peace talks with the rebels involving the United Nations.

On Sunday, the group said it was willing to negotiate with both the Indonesian and New Zealand governments for the release of Mehrtens, but had not received a response.

Papua, a former Dutch colony, was annexed by Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored referendum that independence supporters and human rights groups say was rigged. The Free Papua Movement has waged a low-level guerrilla war against Indonesian rule ever since.

Human rights groups have accused both sides of committing abuses against civilians in the conflict. The Indonesian government limits access to foreign journalists and aid workers in Papua, making information from the region often difficult to verify.

‘Soldiers and police keep dying’

Sukamta, a member of the House of Representatives’ defense committee, criticized the government’s handling of the Papua conflict.

“Attacks by the armed criminal group that have killed many soldiers and civilians show that the government has no clear plan to solve Papua’s problems,” Sukamta told BenarNews on Thursday.

“It’s a pity that soldiers and police keep dying.”

Julius Ibrani, chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association, called on the government to stop combat operations in Papua.

“The combat operation is a policy choice that will only create more violence,” Julius told BenarNews on Thursday.

He said the latest debacle served as a wake-up call for the government to review its efforts in the region.

“The militaristic approach has caused more violence and human rights violations against the people in Papua,” he said.


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