“Rebel gunmen attack Indonesian troops deployed to rescue New Zealand pilot”

Phillip Mark Mehrtens was abducted in February by rebels from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement.

Papuan separatist rebels pose for a photo with a man they said is New Zealander pilot Phillip Mark Mehrtens at an undisclosed location in Papua province, Indonesia. West Papua Liberation Army / via AP

Separatist gunmen attacked Indonesian army troops who were deployed to rescue a New Zealand pilot taken hostage by the rebels in Indonesia’s restive Papua province, leaving at least six dead and about 30 missing, officials said Sunday. Initial information from army reports said there were about 36 soldiers at a post in the hilly district of Nduga, when attackers from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, opened fire on Saturday. At least six died and 21 others fled into the jungle, according to the military reports seen by journalists. A military spokesman confirmed only one dead. Nine soldiers were reportedly being held by the rebels.

Papua military spokesperson Col. Herman Taryaman said the soldiers were part of a group that was searching for Phillip Mark Mehrtens, a New Zealand pilot for the Indonesian aviation company Susi Air who was abducted by the rebels in February. He said authorities were searching for about 30 soldiers. “It’s still unknown exactly how many Indonesian army troops died and were injured,” Taryaman said. “We are still searching, but heavy rain, foggy weather and a lack of communication have hampered our search and evacuation efforts.”

First Adm. Julius Widjojono, the spokesperson for the Indonesian National Armed Forces, or TNI, told a news conference in the capital, Jakarta, that the search operation will be carried out “with maximum force.” He said the rebels confronted troops when they tried to comb an area close to the position of the pilot and his abductors. The rebels shot a soldier who fell into a 15-meter (49-foot) deep ravine, and launched a second attack while troops were getting his body out, Widjojono said. He confirmed only one fatality so far.

Rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said in a statement that the group’s fighters carried out the attack in revenge for the killing of two rebels in a shootout with Indonesian security forces last month. He said at least nine members of Indonesia’s elite army force were killed in Saturday’s attack. Sambom urged Indonesia’s government to stop its military operations in Papua. He also said his group had offered to negotiate with both the Indonesian and New Zealand governments for the pilot they took hostage, but said they had not received a response. “Indonesia’s government must stop its security operation in Papua and be willing to negotiate with our leaders under the mediation of a neutral third party from a United Nations agency,” Sambom said.


Comment: As we all know, there is no shortage of armed conflicts in the world. There’s Ukraine of course and, in the last few days, we are teetering on the brink of a civil war in Sudan. The West, including Israel, is vying for influence. Russia is vying for a Red Sea port. And two generals are vying for control of Khartoum and all of Sudan. 

But when I saw the photos like the one above, I was transported to another time and another world. It reminded me of my short time with the Negritos in the hills outside Subic Bay. I learned much from those men. I took that knowledge back to my RECONDO School in the mountain jungles of Hawaii. Good times. I had to learn more of this conflict in West Papua.

The website for the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) offers a concise history of the origins of the conflict.

After little contact with the Western world, West Papua was formally colonised by the Netherlands in 1898. The islands that now make up Indonesia were also colonised by the Dutch but when the Republic of Indonesia became an independent nation state in 1949, West Papua did not join the country. The Dutch government recognised that West Papua was geographically, ethnically and culturally very different to Indonesia and so the Dutch government began preparing West Papua for its own independence throughout the 1950s. At the end of 1961, West Papua held a Congress at which its people declared independence, and raised their new flag – the Morning Star,

Within months the Indonesian military invaded West Papua. Conflict broke out between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the indigenous population regarding control of the country. The US intervened and engineered an agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, which in 1962 gave control of West Papua to the United Nations and one year later transferred control to Indonesia. The Papuans were never consulted. However, the agreement did promise them their right to self determination – a right which is guaranteed by the UN to everyone on Earth.

The Indonesians have been waging a counterinsurgency in West Papua since then. The ULMWP formed in 2014 to consolidate the different faction of the independence movements among the million or so Austronesian tribesmen living in West Papua. Indonesia claims no ‘creation myth” that West Papua has been and will forever be Indonesian. It’s a simple desire to grab for the resources of the land. It’s very much like the movie “Avatar” both in premise and feel.

The seizure of the New Zealand pilot back in February was not and is not sanctioned by the ULMWP. President Wenda of the provisional ULMWP government has called for the unconditional return of the pilot. The West Papua Liberation Army (WPLA) did this on their own initiative. I’m sure the attack on the Indonesian Army patrol was also on their own initiative. I have a feeling the WPLA is on largely its own. Much like the Kurds, their only friends are the mountains, mountain jungle in this case.


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8 Responses to “Rebel gunmen attack Indonesian troops deployed to rescue New Zealand pilot”

  1. Peter Williams says:

    TTG, you give a big miss to the biggest problem in West Papua, the US company Freeport that controls the province with its bribes. No Freeport and no bribes to Indonesian politicians, no problems in West Papua.

    • TTG says:

      Peter Williams,

      On top of that, the US certainly wants to maintain good political and military relations with the Indonesian government. The West Papuans are SOL.

  2. jerseycityjoan says:

    What kind of money could anybody have been paying Mehrtens to make it worthwhile to risk this happening? I don’t understand.

  3. Whitewall says:

    Another page in the warp and woof of human history. Some will always want power over others while those ‘other’ will resist.

  4. Peter Williams says:

    Australia did the wrong thing in 1975 in granting PNG independence. We should have had discussions with the Indonesians, people in the Soloman Islands in forming one country, stretching from Irian Jaya (Western Papua) to the Solomon Islands. It’s one of the most diverse parts of the world, with Austronesians, Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians living side by side. It could have happened, but Freeport, BHP and others, had other ideas. Greed is NOT good. I spent a bit of time with wontoks from HMPNGN. Wontok literally means in Pidgin someone who speaks the same language, in the Navy it means someone who wears the same uniform.

    • Fred says:


      Isn’t it obvious that some of the Diversity! doesn’t want to live with other kinds of Diversity !?

  5. Leith says:

    Peter W –

    How far is Freeport’s Grasberg gold mine site from the Nduga sites where this took place? It seems to me that the mine management in order to survive and thrive would have to pay the Indonesian side, the ULMWP, the WLPA, and any other breakaway groups in the conflict. All under the table, and it’s pure speculation on my part. Any opinions?

  6. elkern says:

    Wow, and yikes, and yes, isn’t it ever thus? I hope this Kiwi survives; seems like a decent guy, just trying to do his job (flying people in and out of some of the deepest Jungle left on Earth). From the pix, I’d say the rebels kinda like the guy, and he may well like them more than his (erstwhile?) Indonesian employers.

    The core issue is how we [humans] define borders of political units (“countries”). My guess is that these badass Giant Ewoks* deserve “independence” from [Muslim] Indonesia, but of course, it’s never that simple. the coastal towns may well outnumber the mountain villages, and it’s quite possible that Indonesia is more capable of sane administration of the whole area. It’s a shame that we [humans] don’t [yet] have a decent way to handle conflicts like this.

    And of course, a lot of the problems are rooted in Money/Resources/Power. The Grasberg Mine (copper & gold) is in the center of this region, and a key reason that Indonesia wants to maintain control over the area. The mine is run by a US Corp ( Freeport McMoRan, which “gave” 51% ownership to the Indonesian Gov’t in exchange for sole rights until 2041), and who has apparently been paying off local officials for “protection”. Interesting note: former Board members of Freeport McMoRan include Henry Kissinger and Arleigh Burke!

    *”badass Giant Ewoks” could be interpreted as racist, but I mean it as respectful humor. I see them as Ewoks mostly based on the impressive bow & arrow in one of the pix. Also, they don’t seem to have much training with the modern weapons they do have; any rebel force trained by any major power would know to hold their guns toward the ground, rather than showing off by aiming at their friends. Bonus observation: this implies that China isn’t spending much money or effort on arming and training rebels like this!

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