JAKARTADAILY.ID – According to reports, separatists in Indonesia's Papua region claimed that they killed nine soldiers in an ambush, while the military said that only one soldier died during search operations for a kidnapped New Zealand pilot.
The pilot, Phillip Mehrtens, was kidnapped by rebels at an airport in the remote Nduga district in February. The West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of Papua's main separatist group, claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack.
They demanded that the Indonesian government recognize Papuan independence and negotiate for Mehrtens' release. "The United Nations and the New Zealand government have an obligation to push Indonesia to stop the military operation," said rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom on Sunday, as quoted by Al Jazeera.
Indonesian military spokesman Julius Widjojono stated that soldiers were dispersed to several locations in the search for Mehrtens, and they were having communication problems due to bad weather.
Widjojono said the military would intensify the operation to rescue Mehrtens as they have identified his location, but the erratic weather has made the effort challenging.
"As of 2:03 pm local time [05:03 GMT Sunday], the information we have is one died," he said when asked about the higher casualty numbers. "We have not received any other information because it is difficult to reach the area, especially with the uncertain weather."
The Melanesian population of Papua shares few cultural connections with the rest of Indonesia, and the military has long been accused of human rights abuses there.
Papua declared itself independent in 1961, but neighboring Indonesia took control two years later, promising an independence referendum. The subsequent vote in favor of staying part of Indonesia was widely considered to be orchestrated.
Rebel attacks in the region have increased in the past few years, meanwhile flying remains the only option to reach mountainous areas in Papua.