A New Zealand pilot was abducted last week by rebels in the West Papua province of Indonesia after he landed his aircraft in the remote region of Nduga.
Philip Mehrtens, 37, was a pilot for Indonesian airline company Susi when he was captured on February 7 by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), an armed branch of the Free Papua Movement, The New York Post reported. The separatist group released photos and videos of Mehrtens on Tuesday, held at gunpoint, with a warning that he would only stay “safe” if Indonesian authorities refrain from retaliating.
The separatists set fire to the small plane flown by Mehrtens, which contained six people when it was captured, before taking him hostage. Sebby Sambom, a spokesperson for the rebels, sent a statement to the Associated Press saying Mehrtens had been taken hostage as part of their liberation movement, but that the other five people on board the plane had been released since they were indigenous Papuans.
“We have taken the pilot hostage and we are bringing him out,” Sambom said in the statement. “We will never release the pilot we are holding hostage unless Indonesia recognizes and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism.”
On Thursday, The Jakarta Post reported that Papua police announced a “law enforcement operation” was in the works to free Mehrtens if negotiations for his safe release fell through.
Cendrawasih Military Command Maj. Gen. Muhammad Saleh Mustafa reportedly said that a team of local politicians is expected to make contact with the TPNPB to negotiate for Mehrtens’ release, after figuring out where he was being kept based on photos from the separatist group.
“We want everyone to pray that we can finish the job without causing another incident, [that] we can get the pilot released and everything goes back to normal,” Papua Police Chief Inspector Matthius Fakhiri said, according to the outlet.
In a video sent to Radio New Zealand, Mehrtens is seen wearing a denim jacket and a Free Papua T-shirt, surrounded by men holding guns. The video also shows some men holding bows and arrows.
“The Papuan military that has taken me captive to fight for Papuan independence, they ask for the Indonesian military to go home to Indonesia and if not, I will remain captive for my life,” Mehrtens says in the video.
“Indonesia needs to recognize Papuan independence,” he added.
The New Zealand Herald reported that three New Zealand diplomats and two staff members from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs arrived in the capital of Mimika Regency, Central Papua Province to monitor the situation with Mehrtens.