Indonesia to negotiate with West Papuan rebels for NZ pilot’s release

West Papuan protesters demanding
West Papuan protesters demanding "freedom" stage a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Jakarta on 15 August 2020. Image: BenarNews/AFP

By Tria Dianti in Jakarta

Authorities in Indonesia’s Melanesian province Papua will negotiate with indigenous pro-independence rebels to secure the release of a New Zealand pilot the insurgents took hostage last week, say police and military officials.

However, a spokesperson for the rebel group West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) said that while they were ready to negotiate, they would do so only if another country was involved as a mediator.

The Jakarta government’s negotiation plan came after the TPNPB released a video on Tuesday in which the group said it would kill pilot Philip Mehrtens if government security forces came for them.

The Papuan police have been coordinating with the local government as well as indigenous and religious leaders to communicate with the local rebel group led by Egianus Kogoya, provincial police spokesman Benny Adi Prabowo said.

“Regional authorities . . . and customary and religious leaders have access,” he said.

“We are allowing them to take the lead in opening a space for communication with the Egianus Kogoya group,” he said.

Some people tasked with the negotiations have arrived in Nduga regency’s Paro district, where rebels set fire to a plane belonging to Susi Air and took Mehrtens hostage on February 7.

Mehrtens ID confirmed
Early yesterday, Papua military chief Major-General Muhammad Saleh Mustafa confirmed that the person in the photo and video released by the rebel group was Mehrtens.

“Based on the visible features, it is true that the photos and videos circulating on social media are of the Susi Air pilot, namely Captain Philip Mark Mehrtens,” Saleh said in a statement.

In the video, Mehrtens repeated the pro-independece group’s demand for the Indonesian military to withdraw from Papua.

“The Papuan military has taken me captive in their fight for Papuan independence. They ask for the Indonesian military to go home, if not I will remain captive and my life is threatened,” Mehrtens said.

Donal Fariz, a lawyer for Susi Air, also said the person in the video was Mehrtens.

‘Return to the motherland’s fold’
Early indications from comments on the government’s and the rebels’ side do not bode well.

TPNPB spokesman Sebby Sambom said that if Jakarta insisted on negotiating without involving the international community, there would be no talks.

“We don’t want to deal with the Indonesian government only,” Sambom said.

Meanwhile, Indonesian military spokesman Colonel Herman Taryaman called the rebel group’s demand for Indonesia to withdraw from Papua impossible to fulfill and “absurd”.

“In fact, we hope that their group will come to their senses and return to the motherland’s fold,” Taryaman said.

He added that New Zealand Embassy staff had met with Lieutenant General I. Nyoman Cantiasa, the commander of the joint military and police operation in Papua.

“They basically stated that the most important thing is that Philip is safe. Secondly, they asked us to have a medical team and medical equipment on stand-by in the event Philip is evacuated,” Nyoman said.

Earlier hostage-taking
In 2021, another Susi Air pilot from New Zealand and his three passengers were held by pro-independence rebels in Papua’s Puncak regency but were released after two hours.

Security forces were trying to locate Mehrtens by conducting air and land surveillance, Colonel Herman Taryaman said.

“We have not been able to pinpoint Captain Philip’s location yet,” he said.

Violence and tensions in Papua, a region that makes up the western half of New Guinea island, have intensified in recent years.

The region has a history of human rights violations by Indonesian security forces and police. Papuan pro-independence rebels also have been accused of attacking civilians.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua, a former Dutch colony like Indonesia, and annexed it. In 1969, the United Nations sponsored a referendum where only 1025 people voted.

Despite accusations that the vote was a farce, the UN recognised the outcome, effectively endorsing Indonesia’s control over Papua.

Tria Dianti reports for BenarNews. Arie Firdaus in Jakarta also contributed to this report.

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