Indonesia: Separatist rebels release videos showing New Zealand pilot hostage

Arie Firdaus and Tria Dianti
Indonesia: Separatist rebels release videos showing New Zealand pilot hostage New Zealand citizen Philip Mehrtens (third from left), a pilot for Susi Air who was taken hostage last week by separatist rebels from Indonesia’s restive Papua region, is seen in an undated photograph released by the insurgents on Feb. 14, 2023. The photo has been blurred by BenarNews because Mehrtens was likely forced to appear in the video under duress.
[West Papua National Liberation Army]

Updated at 11:06 p.m. ET on 2023-02-14

Separatist rebels in Indonesia’s Papua said Tuesday that a foreign pilot taken hostage last week was alive and well, as they released photographs and videos showing the New Zealand citizen amid a group of insurgents in what appeared to be a forested area.

Security forces said they were looking for the pilot, Philip Mehrtens, in and around Nduga, a remote highland regency and insurgency hot spot where the rebels set fire to his plane on Feb. 7.

Early Wednesday, local time, the senior Indonesian military official in Papua verified that the photos and videos were authentic.

“Based on the features available, it is true that the photos and videos circulating on social media are of Susi Air Pilot Capt Philip Mark Mehrtens together with the KST group,” Maj. Gen. Muhammad Saleh Mustafa, chief of the regional military command, said in a statement, using an acronym for “separatist terrorist group” in Indonesian.

He said that demands the group made in the video “have been heard” and that “technical and tactical steps” had been taken in an intensive search for the pilot.

BenarNews received the video Tuesday from the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB).

“TPNPB-OPM National Command officially releases photos and videos with New Zealand pilot, and the pilot from New Zealand is well and healthy,” Sebby Sambom, spokesman for the Liberation Army, said in a statement.

Mehrtens is seen speaking in one of the videos.

“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,” the man said.

He is standing next to Egianus Kogoya, the local Liberation Army commander, and other rebels, Sambom said.

The man identified as Kogoya is seen saying the hostage would be killed if they are attacked by Indonesian security forces.

“If they come to us, we will shoot the pilot,” he warned.

“We are holding the pilot so that all countries open their eyes for a free Papua,” he said. 

Another video showed when rebels set fire to the Pilatus C-6 Porter aircraft belonging to Susi Air. 

Sambom said Mehrtens was being used as leverage. 

“Because this is a political issue, the New Zealand pilot is a guarantee in political negotiations,” Sambom said in the statement.

BenarNews could not independently verify when and where the videos were taken. 

On Tuesday, Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said the government would prioritize “persuasive efforts” to free the pilot.

“Taking a civilian hostage for any reason is unacceptable. Therefore persuasive efforts are the main guideline for the safety of the hostage, but the government is not ruling out other options,” Mahfud told a news conference.

Mahfud added that Jakarta was communicating with the New Zealand government to discuss efforts to accelerate Mehrtens’ rescue.

Commenting on the rebels’ demand, Mahfud said: “Papua is a legal part of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia both according to the Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia and according to international law.”

In a statement to BenarNews earlier Tuesday, the pilot’s employer, Susi Air, said it had not stopped flying to remote parts of the Papua region despite the attack on its aircraft and the hostage-taking.

“We will not stop flying in the Papua region and we will continue to fly elsewhere, but please give us protection,” said the airline’s chief of operations, Melinasary, who goes by a single name.

“We have supported flights for the search process and provided logistical assistance in the form of food in the search for our pilot.”

Jungle-covered Papua relies on air transportation in the absence of extensive road networks.

Donal Fariz, a lawyer for Susi Air, said the rebel group had not contacted the airline to communicate demands.

“They never contacted us directly to convey what they wanted. We leave it to the authorities, hopefully they can help release the pilot,” Donal told BenarNews.

Paro residents flee

Meanwhile, Papua military command spokesman Col. Herman Taryaman said 167 people had fled Paro district in Nduga regency in fear of violence after the hostage-taking incident.

They were being sheltered in the residence of a local official.

Some of the villagers walked for five days to neighboring Kenyam district, the main town in Nduga, said Herman.

“They fled because they were afraid of intimidation from the armed criminal and terrorist group,” Herman told BenarNews, referring to the separatists.

Emanuel Gobay, an activist at the Papua Legal Aid Institute (LBH), said the latest developments could force more people to leave Nduga after a surge in clashes between rebels and government security forces in 2018 forced villagers from their homes.

“Displaced people from 2018-2019 have not returned. We fear there will be more pockets of displaced people,” he told BenarNews.

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 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.

That 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.

This story has been updated with an Indonesian military commander verifying the videos. It also corrects the year given for when a surge in clashes forced villagers to flee their homes.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.