Papua separatist rebels appeal to New Zealand pilot’s captor to let him go after a year

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Separatist rebels asked for the immediate release Saturday of the New Zealand pilot who’s been held hostage for almost a year in Indonesia’s restive Papua region.

Egianus Kogoya, a regional commander in the Free Papua Movement, took Philip Mark Mehrtens, a pilot from Christchurch who was working for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, on Feb. 7 2023.

In a statement, Sebby Sambom, spokesperson of the West Papua Liberation Army — the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement — said they have asked Kogoya to release Mehrtens on a humanitarian basis.

“Using the pilot as a guarantee for an independent Papua at a fixed price is absolutely impossible to happen,” Sambom said.

Kogoya and his troops stormed a single-engine plane shortly after it landed on a small runway in Paro, a mountainous village of Nduga regency. Planning to use the pilot to negotiate, Kogoya has previously said they won’t release Mehrtens unless Indonesia frees Papua as sovereign country.

Sambom 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.

Sambom did not say when Mehrtens’ release would take place, but said they would work with a neutral and independent international party as a facilitator and mediator.

In a statement Friday, Sambom said the West Papua Liberation Army headquarters agreed to release Mehrtens despite what they called a lack of effort by New Zealand and Indonesia. He said the initial high-level meeting in April with a delegation from New Zealand in Papua New Guinea ended without follow up.

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

In May, the group sent a letter to Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Sambom said they received a response that Widodo would negotiate with the rebels, but there has been no further communication.

“We plan to proceed with the release based on humanity,” Sambom said.

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

Faizal Ramadhani, who heads the joint security peace force in Papua, said authorities will continue to prioritize a peaceful approach for Mehrtens’ release.

“We hope they can realize it soon, so that the innocent pilot can return to his country and to his family in good health,” Ramadhani said.

In 1996, the Free Papua Movement abducted 26 members of a World Wildlife Fund research mission in Mapenduma. Two Indonesians in that group were killed by their abductors, but the remaining hostages were freed within five months.

Conflict in Papua — Indonesia’s easternmost region and a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia — has spiked in the past year, with dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed.

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