Alfian Kartono and Niniek Karmini, Jayapura, Indonesia – Separatist gunmen opened fire on a military post in Indonesia's restive Papua province, killing at least six soldiers and leaving dozens of others missing, the army and the rebels said Sunday.
Attackers from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, carried out the assault against Indonesian soldiers on Saturday in the hilly district of Nduga, a stronghold of separatists who have battled Indonesian rule in the mineral-rich but impoverished region since the early 1960s.
Papua military spokesperson Col. Herman Taryaman said the soldiers at the Mugi army post were part of a group deployed to search 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 are still searching for about 30 other soldiers still missing after the attack, including nine believed to be held by the rebels.
"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."An Indonesian army report circulating among journalists said there were about 36 soldiers at the post in Mugi Mam village when the separatists launched their attack with automatic weapons, killing at least six troops and sending 21 others fleeing into the jungle. It said nine soldiers were being held by the rebels.
Rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom in a statement to The Associated Press confirmed that the group's fighters had carried out the attack, which he said was 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, which was led by the group's commander Egianus Kogoya, and he urged Indonesia's government to stop its military operations in Papua.
Sambom also said his group has offered a peace negotiation to both the Indonesian and New Zealand governments in connection with the pilot they took hostage, but said they have 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.
A group of separatist rebels led by Kogoya stormed a single-engine plane in February shortly after it landed on a small runway in Paro in remote Nduga district and abducted its pilot. The plane initially was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers who had been building a health center in Paro after separatist rebels threatened to kill them.
Saturday's shootout is the latest in a series of violent incidents in recent years in Papua, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia. Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969, after a U.N.-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.
Rebel attacks have spiked in the past year, with dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed.