Indonesian forces search for NZ pilot taken hostage by Papuan rebels

Victor Mambor and Arie Firdaus
2023.02.08
Jayapura, Indonesia, and Jakarta
Indonesian forces search for NZ pilot taken hostage by Papuan rebels Police guard a hospital where workers threatened by Papuan rebels were brought for medical examinations in Mimika regency, Papua province, Indonesia, Feb. 8, 2023.
[Saldi Hermanto/AP]

Indonesia’s military said Wednesday it was still searching for a New Zealand pilot who rebels took hostage in Papua after setting fire to his plane a day earlier, but that the five passengers they let go were safe. 

The military also said it had safely evacuated from Paro, a district in Nduga regency, 15 workers who were building a health clinic but whom separatist rebels had threatened to kill.

“The joint [military-police] task force is still searching,” a local military commander, Brig. Gen. Juinta Omboh Sembiring, said about Philip Mehrtens, the 37-year-old pilot working for regional carrier Susi Air. 

National police chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo said the five passengers on the plane had been brought to safety with the help of local people. 

“[As] for the passengers, everyone is safe,” Listyo told reporters.

The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) had said in a statement Tuesday that it would not release Mehrtens “unless Indonesia sets us free from its colonization.”

On Wednesday, the Liberation Army said it would not release the pilot until Western countries stopped supporting Indonesia’s rule over Papua.

“The story isn’t over here,” Liberation Army spokesman Sebby Sambom said in a voice note sent to BenarNews. 

“It will continue until countries like New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and Europe take responsibility for arming Indonesia and training them to kill us for 60 years.”

Meanwhile, Indonesian Armed Forces chief Admiral Yudo Margono cast doubts on claims that Mehrtens had been taken hostage, and said the pilot fled after his plane was attacked. 

“There was no hostage-taking. He saved himself. We don’t know his whereabouts but we are searching for him,” Yudo told reporters.

Consular support had been given to the pilot’s family, the New Zealand government said in an email sent to BenarNews on Wednesday morning, declining to comment further.

‘Definitely traumatized’

Separately, 15 workers who were building a community health clinic in Nduga were transported by helicopter and underwent medical examinations in Kenyam, the main town in Nduga, according to Papua military commander Maj. Gen Saleh Mustafa.

Saleh said the workers were briefly held captive by the Liberation Army, but the rebel group’s spokesman, Sambom, called that “nonsense.”

“The TNI [military] and the police are only seeking legitimacy to carry out armed operations here. If we had really taken them hostage, we wouldn’t have released them,” Sambom told BenarNews.

Local military commander Brig. Sembiring said the leader of the Liberation Army in Nduga, Egianus Kogoya, had threatened to kill the workers if they did not leave Paro district.

“I think they are definitely traumatized, so we are now focusing on restoring their condition, both psychologically and physically,” Sembiring said in a statement.

Threats to civilians and airline crews had disrupted humanitarian work in Nduga, a regency in Papua’s central highlands, said Theofranus Litaay, an aide to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

“The workers were building a much-needed health center, and the pilot is serving a government-subsidized route to support access for the community,” Litaay told BenarNews Wednesday.

“Police must conduct a thorough investigation and enforce the law against the perpetrators of this crime.”

Air transportation is vital in jungle-covered Papua, where road networks are limited. 

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

In July 2022, rebels killed 10 civilians, mostly traders from other parts of Indonesia, accusing them of being spies for government security forces.

It was the deadliest attack by insurgents in the region since 2018 when insurgents attacked workers who were building roads and bridges in Nduga, killing 20 people, including an Indonesian soldier. At the time, the TPNPB said those killed were not civilian workers, but soldiers from the army’s engineering detachment.

The attack prompted the government to send more troops to Papua.

The region has a history of human rights violations by Indonesian security forces and police. Papuan separatist 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 about 1,000 people voted.

Despite accusations that the vote was a farce, the U.N. recognized the outcome, effectively endorsing Indonesia’s control over Papua.

Pizaro Gozali Idrus and Dandy Koswaraputra in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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