West Papua rebels release photos of captured New Zealand pilot

Phillip Mehrtens was taken hostage last week after landing his small commercial plane in the Papuan highlands.

A man said to be Phillip Mehrtens surrounded by rebels in a rural location. He is wearing a t-shirt for Papuan independence, denim jacket, brown shorts and a hat. One rebel fighter is holding his wrist and another his hand. There are two fighters squatting at the front holding their guns.
The man said to be Mehrtens was shown surrounded by fighters in a rural location. He was flying for Indonesian carrier Susi Air when he was captured [West Papua Liberation Army via AP Photo]

Independence fighters in Indonesia’s Papua province have released the first photos and videos of a man they say is the New Zealand pilot they took hostage last week.

The West Papua Liberation Army captured Phillip Mehrtens after he landed his small commercial plane in the remote mountainous region of Nduga last week.

The flight had five passengers and was due to pick up 15 construction workers who had been building a clinic in Paro. The rebels said they allowed the five passengers to leave because they were Indigenous Papuans.

Rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom on Tuesday sent the videos and photos to media, including the Associated Press news agency, that showed a man identified as Mehrtens standing in a forest surrounded by a group of people armed with rifles, spears as well as bows and arrows.

In one 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,” rebel leader Egianus 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.”

The government in Jakarta said it was making every effort to persuade the group to release Mehrtens.

“Taking civilians hostage for any reason is unacceptable,” Mohammad Mahfud, the coordinating minister for political, security and legal affairs, said in a video statement late on Tuesday. He said persuasion is the best method to ensure hostage safety, but “the government does not rule out other efforts”.

A man said to be Phillip Mehrtens in a line with armed West Papua rebels, The rebels are in shorts, t-shirts and wellington boots. Some are wearing traditional hats with plumes and have leaves and grasses tied to their biceps. There is a West Papua independence flag behind them.
West Papuan rebels have been fighting Indonesia in a low-level conflict since a controversial referendum in 1969 [West Papua Liberation Army via AP Photo]

A spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Al Jazeera: “We are aware of the photos and video circulating but won’t be commenting further at this stage.”

A low-level armed rebellion has been simmering in the province since Indonesia took control of the resource-rich region after a controversial United Nations-backed referendum in 1969.

Papua occupies the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea, and the majority of Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of mostly Muslim Indonesia.

The conflict has escalated significantly since 2018 when more than two dozen people working on a road project in Nduga were killed by rebels. Allegations of racism against Indigenous Papuans by other Indonesians triggered huge protests in 2019 that led to thousands of people being evacuated.

Construction workers have often been targeted by the rebels because they are seen as potential spies for the Indonesian state.

Koyoga’s group had threatened to kill the 15 workers that Mehrtens was due to pick up, and the group had taken refuge with church leaders.

Flying is the only practical way of accessing many areas in the mountainous area.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies