Phillip Mehrtens, a commercial pilot with Susi Air, was taken captive from an airstrip in the troubled Indonesian province.
New Zealand has called for the immediate release of pilot Phillip Mehrtens who was taken captive by fighters in Indonesia’s troubled Papua province a year ago.
Mehrtens, who was flying a single-propeller plane for Indonesia’s Susi Air, was snatched from his aircraft on February 7 last year by a group of fighters from the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-PB) who said he would only be released if Papua was given its independence.
The group, led by regional commander Elias Kogoya, later released images and videos showing Mehrtens surrounded by rebels – some armed with guns and others with bows and arrows – in remote forested areas.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the New Zealander had been providing “vital air links and supplies to remote communities” at the time he was kidnapped.
“We strongly urge those holding Phillip to release him immediately and without harm. His continued detention serves the interests of no one,” Peters said in a statement to mark a year since the pilot was taken.
The incident in the remote highlands region of Nduga, one of the most restive areas of the province, drew renewed attention to one of the world’s least-known and longest-running conflicts.
Papua, whose people are ethnically Melanesian, occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea – just 200km (124 miles) north of Australia – and shares a land border with Papua New Guinea (PNG).
A low-level battle for independence has been under way since Indonesia took control of the resource-rich former Dutch colony after a controversial referendum in 1969.
Peters said New Zealand had been working with Indonesian authorities and others towards securing Phillip’s release.
“Let me be absolutely clear,” he said. “There can never be any justification for hostage taking.”
Peters’s statement came after the TPN-PB, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), said they had asked Kogoya to release Mehrtens, although they gave no timeframe for when that might happen.
“We plan to proceed with the release based on humanity,” TPN-PB spokesperson Sebby Sambom was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.
“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.”
Peters said Mehrtens had been able to contact some friends and family before Christmas and had assured them that he was well.
New Zealand was “exploring all avenues” to bring the pilot home, he added.
Indonesia deployed police and soldiers into the highland district in an attempt to rescue Mehrtens shortly after he was taken captive and there have been a number of clashes since.
Outsiders, including foreign journalists, international organisations and diplomats require special permission from Jakarta to visit the region, which is the location of one of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits.
There has been a surge in violence in Papua since 2018 when rebels killed 24 Indonesian men who were building a major new road to connect the coast with the highlands.
United Nations human rights experts have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation.