No breakthrough in hostage Kiwi pilot talks held by West Papuan rebels

NZ hostage pilot Phillip Mehrtens
NZ hostage pilot Phillip Mehrtens . . . a husband and father from Christchurch who was working for Indonesian feeder airline Susi Air when captured. Image: RNZ Pacific/FB

By Caleb Fotheringham, RNZ Pacific journalist

All parties, including West Papuan pro-independence fighters who took Phillip Mehrtens hostage, want the New Zealand pilot released but freeing him is “complicated”.

In February 2023, Mehrtens, a husband and father from Christchurch, was working for Indonesian airline, Susi Air, when he landed his small Pilatus plane on a remote airstrip in Nduga Regency in the Papua highlands.

He was taken hostage by a faction of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) commanded by warlord Eganius Kogoya.

The rebels, who also torched his aircraft, later claimed he had breached a no-fly order that they had issued for the area.

Sixteen months on, and despite failed attempts to either rescue or secure Mehrtens’ release, there’s been very little progress.

A Human Rights Watch researcher in Indonesia, Andreas Harsono, said it was a complex situation.

“It is complicated because there is no trust between the West Papuan militants and the Indonesian military,” he said.

Harsono said as far as he was aware Mehrtens was in an “alright physical condition” all things considered.

In a statement in February, the TPNPB high commander Terianus Satto said they would release Mehrtens to his family and asked for it to be facilitated by the United Nations secretary-general.

Failed rescue bid
Harsono said the situation was made more difficult through a failed rescue mission that saw casualties from both sides in April.

“Some Papuans were killed, meanwhile on the Indonesian side more than a dozen Indonesian soldiers, including from the special forces were also killed. It is complicated, there is no trust between the two sides.”

United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) executive secretary Markus Haluk — speaking through a translator — told RNZ Pacific space for all parties, including the West Papua National Liberation Army, needed to be made to discuss Mehrtens’ release.

“They never involve TPNPB as part of the conversation so that’s why that is important to create the space, and where stakeholders and actors can come together and talk about the process of release.”

Meanwhile, in a statement sent to RNZ Pacific, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Mehrtens’ safety and wellbeing remained MFAT’s top priority.

“We’re doing everything we can to secure a peaceful resolution and Phillip’s safe release, including working closely with the Indonesian authorities and deploying New Zealand consular staff.

“We are also supporting Phillip’s family, both here in New Zealand and in Indonesia,” the spokesperson said.

RNZ has contacted the Indonesian Embassy in Wellington for comment.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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