There have been reports that Indonesian military forces suffered casualties following a West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) ambush in the Papua region during search and rescue efforts to locate kidnapped New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens.
While exact numbers remains unconfirmed, local sources have reported that at least six soldiers were killed and 30 are missing after the attack. The Indonesian military told the Australian news outlet ABC that one soldier was killed after falling down a ravine and that nine other soldiers were taken captive by TPNPB fighters. Papua military spokesperson Colonel Herman Taryaman, however, reported that “It’s still unknown exactly how many Indonesian army troops died and were injured” as Indonesian forces search for dozens of missing troops in the thick jungle of the region.
On February 7, Mehrtens was piloting a small passenger plane for Susi Air to the remote village of Paro in the remote Papuan highlands. Due to the remoteness of the Papua region, aircraft are often used for quick and easy transportation to villages. Upon landing, the aircraft was quickly surrounded by TPNPB fighters, who released the five civilian passengers because they were indigenous Papuans. Mehrtens was taken captive, with TPNPB leader Egianus Kogoya saying he would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papaun independence.
“We’re taking the pilot hostage, not for anything else, but for Papua’s freedom,” Kogoya said in a video statement, adding “He will be safe with me as long as Indonesia does not use its arms, either from the air or on the ground.”
The TPNPB released pictures and videos of Mehrtens as proof of life on February 14. In one video, Mehrtens was recorded saying “Indonesia needs to recognize Papua’s independence.”
After Mehrtens’ capture, Indonesian officials quickly spun up search efforts and negotiations with local tribal leaders to secure his release. New Zealand officials initially stressed the prioritizing of negotiations to prevent potential harm to the pilot, who is said to currently be in “good health.” Over the past several weeks however, Indonesian forces have launched a series of failed attempts to rescue Mehrtens, resulting in clashes and casualties on both sides.
It does appear, however, that the TPNPB is open for negotiations. The group initially demanded that Mehrtens would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papuan independence, however, they told Reuters earlier this month that they have dropped that demand and are seeking to negotiate the pilot’s release because he is “not our enemy.”