Indonesian soldier killed during operation to free pilot in Papua

Arie Firdaus and Victor Mambor
Jakarta and Jayapura, Indonesia
Indonesian soldier killed during operation to free pilot in Papua Indonesian military spokesman Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono gestures during a news conference at military headquarters in Jakarta following a separatist attack in the Papua region, April 16, 2023.
Adek Berry/AFP

Updated at 9:14 p.m. ET on 2023-04-16

Separatist rebels in Indonesia’s Papua region killed a soldier during an ambush on security forces who were conducting an operation to rescue a New Zealand pilot held captive since February, a military spokesman said Sunday.

The soldier, identified as Pvt. Miftahul Arifin, was shot and fell into a deep ravine when rebels ambushed government troops who were raiding a suspected location of the kidnappers in Nduga regency, said Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono, Indonesian Armed Forces spokesman.

“As of 2:03 p.m. local time, the information we have is one died,” Julius said.

Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, said nine soldiers were killed in Saturday’s ambush, but he did not say if members of his group had been killed or injured.

Julius said troops tried to save Arifin but faced more gunfire from the separatists.

“The task force was trying to get closer to the position of the kidnappers, but they were attacked,” Julius told a news conference in Jakarta, referring to a rebel group holding Philip Mehrtens, the New Zealand pilot.

Mehrtens, who works for regional carrier Susi Air, was kidnapped by the armed group after his plane was burned shortly after landing at Paro airstrip in Nduga on Feb. 7.

The Papua military command confirmed the attack, but said it could not verify the number of casualties.

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

Rebels threaten more attacks

Sambom said armed attacks would continue if Indonesia refused to hold peace talks with the separatists involving the United Nations.

“The Indonesian government did not listen to our demands, but instead carried out a military operation, so our forces under Egianus Kogoya’s command started to fight back,” Sambom told BenarNews.

“We have asked for peace talks with New Zealand and Indonesia, but they have not answered our letter for two months. The U.N. and New Zealand must pressure Indonesia to stop military operations and negotiate under the mediation of a neutral third party.”

Rebel leader Egianus Kogoya sits on a captured Susi Air plane in Indonesia’s Papua region, Feb. 7, 2023. [West Papua National Liberation Army/Handout photo]

Arifin was the fifth soldier killed in clashes with Papuan rebels in the last 30 days. The most recent killing occurred on April 9 in Intan Jaya regency.

Meanwhile, Julius said Adm. Yudo Margono, commander of the armed forces, ordered that troops continue the operation to rescue Mehrtens despite the setback.

“The commander’s order is clear and firm: continue, don’t hesitate,” he said, adding the military would reevaluate the operation following the attack.

The military on Friday accused the rebels of killing civilians, expelling non-Papuan traders and forcing villagers to flee their homes in another regency, Intan Jaya.

Sambom and human rights group KontraS Papua responded by saying security forces had burned houses in villages and civilians had gone missing or been shot dead.

Papua, in Indonesia’s far-eastern region, is home to a decades-old insurgency that has heated up in recent years.

It is notorious for human rights abuses committed by members of the Indonesian police and security forces. In addition, armed separatist Papuan rebels have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly attributed the source of the main photo to the Papua rebels.


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