Papua separatists release pictures of captured New Zealand pilot
Phillip Mark Mehrtens has been held hostage for about a week after his plane was torched by members of the West Papua National Liberation Army. The other passengers were released because they were indigenous Papuans. The flight was meant to airlift workers building a health centre who had received death threats.
Jayapura (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Separatist rebels in the Indonesian province of Papua have released photos and videos of a New Zealand pilot taken hostage last week.
Originally from Christchurch, Phillip Mark Mehrtens, a pilot with Susi Air and, was abducted by fighters from the West Papua National Liberation Army (WPNLA), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement that is seeking the province's independence from Indonesia.
After Mehrtens’s plane landed in Paro, Nduga district, the rebels, led by 24-year-old militant Egianus Kogoya, seized the aircraft and took Mehrtens and five passengers hostage. The latter, all indigenous Papuans, were eventually released, rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said.
Sambom yesterday sent pictures and videos to the Associated Press in which a group of armed men led by Kogoya are seen setting fire to the plane on the runway.
The footage shows the Papuan leader sitting in the plane’s cockpit saying that the pilot was taken hostage as part of their struggle "to liberate Papua" from Indonesia.
"I took him hostage for Papua's independence, not for food or drink," Kogoya said with a man, identified as Mehrtens, standing next to him. "He will be safe with me as long as Indonesia does not use its arms, either from the air or on the ground."
So far, the New Zealand government has issued very few statements about the affair.
Mathius Fakhiri, the police chief of Jayapura, the provincial capital, told reporters that local authorities are trying to gain the pilot's freedom by involving several community leaders, including tribal and church officials, to establish communication and negotiate with the rebels.
The flight to Paros, which is in a mountainous area that is difficult to reach by other means, had been organised to evacuate a group of 15 workers involved in building a local health centre.
Threatened with death by the West Papua National Liberation Army, they took refuge in the home of a priest while waiting for help, which arrived on 8 February.
Papua is located in the western part of the island of New Guinea, which Indonesia annexed in 1969 after a controversial referendum.
Since then, the province has been the scene of a low-intensity armed insurgency with Papuan separatist rebels fighting Indonesian security forces. In 2021 clashes rose by 80 per cent over 2020.
Coordinating Minister for Political, Security and Legal Affairs Mohammad Mahfud said that " Papua will forever remain a legitimate part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia."
Mahfud added that the government is making all necessary efforts to convince the rebels to release Mehrtens, noting that persuasion is the best method to ensure the safety of the hostage, although “the government does not rule out other efforts.”