Indonesia Papua rebels say kidnapped NZ pilot is safe

New Zealand pilot Phillip Mark Mehrtens was abducted by Indonesian independence fighters.

New Zealand pilot Phillip Mark Mehrtens was abducted by Indonesian independence fighters. Photo: AAP

Separatist rebels in Indonesia’s restive Papua province have released chilling photos and videos of a man they say is the Kiwi pilot they snatched as a hostage last week.

Phillip Mark Mehrtens, a pilot for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was abducted by independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement.

They stormed his single-engine plane shortly after it landed on a small runway in Paro in remote Nduga district.

The plane, carrying five passengers, was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers who had been building a health centre in Paro after a group of separatist rebels led by Egianus Kogoya threatened to kill them, Nduga district chief Namia Gwijangge said.

“Our plan to evacuate the workers angered the rebels, who responded by setting fire to the plane and seizing the pilot,” said Mr Gwijangge, who was one of the passengers.

“We deeply regret this incident.”

There were initial fears for the fate of the five passengers. But rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said earlier that all had been released because they were indigenous Papuans.

Mr Sambom sent videos and photos to The Associated Press on Tuesday that showed a group of gunmen led by Mr Kogoya setting fire to the plane on the runway. Sitting in the plane’s cockpit, Mr Kogoya said he took the pilot hostage as part of the rebels’ struggle “to free Papua” from Indonesia.

Another video showed a man identified as Mr Mehrtens standing in a forest surrounded by a group of people armed with rifles, spears and bows and arrows. In a third video, the man was ordered by the rebels to say, “Indonesia must recognise Papua is independent”.

“I took him hostage for Papua independence, not for food or drinks,” Mr Kogoya said in the video with the man 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.”

Photos and footage were also released to New Zealand media. Website Stuff said one translation from a video by an NZ academic who had lived in Indonesia, reveals that warning that Mr Mehrtens “will die here” like “the rest of us” if there were attempts by the Indonesian military to rescue him.

Dr Chris Wilson, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland, told Stuff that some of the videos were “threatening”.

Mr Mehrtens grew up in Christchurch and trained as a pilot there. He flew for airlines in Asia before returning to Auckland with his wife and son, and worked for Jetstar.

Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, security and legal affairs, Mohammad Mahfud, said the government was making every effort to persuade the rebels to release Mr Mehrtens “because the priority is the safety of the hostage”.

“Taking civilians hostage for any reason is unacceptable,” Mr Mahfud said in a video statement late on Tuesday. He said persuasion was the best method to ensure hostage safety, but “the government does not rule out other efforts”.

He emphasised the government’s view that Papua is part of Indonesia.

“Papua will forever remain a legitimate part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia,” Mr Mahfud said.

Papua police chief Mathius Fakhiri said in Jayapura, the provincial capital, that police were trying to obtain Mr Mehrtens’ released by involving several community leaders, including tribal and church figures, to build communication and negotiate with the rebels.

Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished Papua region, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia.

Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region.

– with AAP

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