Deep in the foggy wilds of the Papuan highlands, a platoon of Indonesian soldiers was combing the jungle, looking to rescue a New Zealand pilot who had been held by armed separatists for weeks and used as a pawn in a decadeslong conflict. Then the treeline came alive.
The West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB), an armed and fierce group of independence fighters, attacked the Indonesian soldiers’ military post in the northeastern corner of Papua’s Nduga regency on Saturday. At least six government soldiers were killed, while 21 others fled into the jungle, according to military and media reports. In a statement to VICE World News, TPNPB claims to have arrested and executed a further nine.
Philip Mehrtens, the hostage, is still alive. TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom told VICE World News on Monday that the 37-year-old pilot, who was abducted after touching down in Nduga on Feb. 7, was safe and well. But if Indonesian authorities keep sending militarized rescue parties after him, Sambom said, that could quickly change.
“If Indonesia air attacks by helicopters, then the pilot [is at] risk,” Sambom warned.
Papua, which sits to the west of the nation of Papua New Guinea, is officially a province of Indonesia. But for the separatists of TPNPB—as well as thousands of indigenous Papuans who call the province home—it is an annexed state fighting a battle for territorial independence going back decades. And Mehrtens is a bargaining chip.
Shortly after his abduction, TPNPB militants declared that they took Mehrtens hostage in retaliation for support provided by Western nations to Indonesian security forces, which have often clashed with the separatists. They have threatened to kill him unless the Indonesian government recognises West Papua as an independent state.
On Saturday, the separatist group demonstrated their volition by killing what it said was 15 members of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI).
“And this number has been confirmed directly from the leadership of TPNPB Ndugama Derakma, therefore Jakarta should not hide TNI members who have been victims in the hands of the TPNPB forces,” TPNPB said in a statement sent to VICE World News.
The group further claimed that Indonesian forces had carried out helicopter airstrikes against them and exacerbated the situation, accusing the soldiers of threatening Mehrtens’ safety.
“The Indonesian military and police have provoked us for the war,” the group said in the statement, calling for a meeting with the New Zealand government if it wants to save Mehrtens.
TPNPB, which acts as the primary armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPN), in March released “proof of life” footage of Mehrtens, showing him surrounded by militants armed with bows, pistols, and machine guns while he reads out a written statement repeating their demands: “No foreign pilots are permitted to work and fly in Papua until Papua is independent. OPN requests the United Nations to mediate between Papua and Indonesia, to work towards Papuan independence. OPN will release me after Papua is independent.”
Now, more than two months since Mehrtens was taken captive, observers say they see no easy way out for the pilot.
Uday Bakhshi, a security and geopolitics researcher who reports for the Militant Wire research network, said the New Zealander faces a “very serious risk of losing his life.”
“I think the West Papua National Liberation Army is realizing that the capture of one pilot will not give them independence as they had initially demanded,” Bakhshi, who specializes in conflict and terrorism in Southeast Asia, told VICE World News. “But it doesn’t look good for Philip, because we’re more than two months in and we’re not sure that Indonesia knows where he is even at this point.”
Indonesian military spokesperson Julius Widjojono insisted on Sunday that they were aware of Mehrtens’ location, claiming that the search operation would continue “with maximum force.” Colonel Herman Taryaman, a military spokesperson in Papua, said on Monday that authorities were searching for about 30 soldiers, but conceded that they didn’t know how many soldiers were killed or injured and that search efforts were hampered by inclement weather and a failure to establish contact.
While the exact number of casualties from the recent clash between TPNPB and Indonesian security forces remains unconfirmed, Bakhshi said that if the separatists’ claims are true it would constitute the group’s deadliest attack of the year so far.
He said it’s also an escalation in a simmering crisis that has seen scores of civilians killed in recent years. Last March, TPNPB killed eight workers who were repairing a telecommunications tower in Puncak district. In 2018, the same group killed 31 construction workers who were building roads and bridges as part of an infrastructure project aimed at fuelling economic development in the region, which is the poorest in the country.
More recently, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua—a separate but similar secession group to TPNPB—said tensions in Papua’s central mountainous region had increased since the kidnapping and at least four armed conflicts broke out between TPNPB and TNI last month, according to the Asia Pacific Report, a non-profit publication that provides analysis on the region.
On Friday, TPNPB separatists opened fire on a civilian plane in Papua’s Puncak regency, forcing it to land at a runway. The group also posted footage of the downed plane, with a declaration that the group would start targeting pilots.
The next day, Mehrtens’ would-be rescuers came under fire.
Bakhshi told VICE World News on Tuesday that Indonesian authorities have already deployed extra troops to Papua in response to Saturday’s conflict. He noted that they are “taking it quite seriously” and will likely want revenge if the death count is as high as the separatists claim.
He is worried, however, that retaliation will only inflame tensions further.
“What they [TPNPB] are basically saying is that these Indonesian military actions are making things less safe for Philip, and that Indonesia and New Zealand are not coming to the table to negotiate,” he said. “Even if there’s a rescue operation and they know where Philip is, there is a very high chance that the TPNPB kills him. I don’t have much hope for him at this point.”
The Papua region, which comprises both Papua and West Papua, was controversially incorporated into Indonesia control in a heavilycriticized, UN-sponsored vote in 1969. Since the annexation the region has been wracked by independence battles, resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000 Papuans by most estimates.
Much of that conflict has involved TPNPB, which has carried out a guerrilla warfare campaign against Indonesia’s military and police, while also targeting civilians. Pro-independence Papuans regard the Indonesian government as colonisers, and point to Jakarta’s infrastructure projects and transmigration programmes as attempts to transform the ethnic composition of the region—a campaign researchers labelled a “slow-motion genocide,”
Tensions have escalated over the past few years, with dozens of casualties among separatists, Indonesian security forces, and civilians.
Bakhshi called the situation in Papua “a powder keg” and suggested that the only thing standing in the way of a full-blown, retaliatory military operation from the Indonesian government is the international attention currently placed on the situation.
Source : VICE