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New Zealand appeals for release of pilot taken hostage last year by West Papua rebels

Foreign minister Winston Peters appeals for release of Philip Mehrtens ‘without harm’

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Wednesday 07 February 2024 06:17 GMT
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Video shows captured New Zealand pilot surrounded by armed Papuan separatists

New Zealand has urged rebels in Indonesia's West Papua region to release a pilot they abducted last year to leverage him to broker independence from the mainland.

Philip Mehrtens, 37, was kidnapped in February 2023 after he landed his small plane at the Paro airport in the remote highlands of the Nduga regency in Papua – a region at the heart of a decades-long war led by separatists against Indonesia.

The soldiers of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) led by group commander Egianus Kogoya, stormed the plane belonging to Indonesia’s Susi Air shortly after it landed carrying five passengers.

New Zealand’s foreign minister Winston Peters on Monday said the pilot's year-long detention "serves the interest of no one" and called for his immediate release "without harm".

The rebels in rare updates mentioned that the pilot was healthy and well-fed despite initially threatening to kill him over unfulfilled separatism demands.

Mr Mehrtens was able to contact some friends and family just before Christmas to assure them he was alive and well, the minister said, adding: "We are still concerned at the length of time he has been held".

Authorities in New Zealand reportedly pressed multiple government agencies to work with their Indonesian counterpart to secure the pilot’s release.

“Let me be absolutely clear. There can never be any justification for hostage-taking,” Mr Peters said.

The foreign minister's plea comes just days after the rebel group TPNPB said they had asked commander Kogoya to release Mr Mehrtens.

“Using the pilot as a guarantee for an independent Papua at a fixed price is absolutely impossible to happen," TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom said, according to the Associated Press.

He said there was no precedent for such an exchange, urging Kogoya to retract his previous statements and let the pilot go.

“There is no history in this world that any country has ever been independence in exchange with a hostage,” he said.

Mr Sambom did not clarify when the pilot would be released, but said they would work with a neutral and independent international party as a facilitator and mediator.

The West Papua Liberation Army headquarters agreed to release Mr Mehrtens despite a "lack of effort" by New Zealand and Indonesia, the spokesperson said. He said the initial high-level meeting in April with a delegation from New Zealand in Papua New Guinea ended without follow-up.

That same month, armed separatists attacked Indonesian army troops who were deployed to rescue Mehrtens.

The group reportedly received a response to a letter sent in May to Indonesian president Joko Widodo, which suggested that the president would negotiate with the rebels.

But there has been no further communication, Mr Sambom said, adding: "We plan to proceed with the release based on humanity."

“We believed that most Australians and New Zealanders support Papua’s independence,” he added. “We don’t want to be blamed by the international community if the pilot dies while he is being held hostage by our fighters.”

Papua, the world’s third-largest island country and a resource-rich region, was formerly a Dutch colony before it was controversially brought under Indonesian control in a widely criticised vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969.

Its easternmost provinces have been battered with a low-level battle for independence, but the conflict escalated significantly since 2018, with pro-independence fighters conducting deadlier attacks.

At least 10 traders and an indigenous Papuan were killed by separatist gunmen in July 2022. In March, rebels killed eight technicians repairing a remote telecommunications tower.

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