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West Papuan separatists release images of kidnapped New Zealand pilot

WEST PAPUAN separatists have released photos and videos of a man they said is the pilot from New Zealand whom they took hostage last week.

Phillip Mark Mehrtens of Christchurch, a pilot for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was abducted by independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, who stormed his single-engine plane shortly after it landed on a small runway in Paro in remote Nduga district.

The plane, carrying five passengers, was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers who had been building a health centre in Paro after a group of separatist rebels led by Egianus Kogoya threatened to kill them, said Indonesia’s Nduga district chief Namia Gwijangge.

“Our plan to evacuate the workers angered the rebels, who responded by setting fire to the plane and seizing the pilot,” said Mr Gwijangge, who was one of the passengers. “We deeply regret this incident.”

Flying is the only practical way of accessing many parts of the mountainous area.

The rebels released all five passengers because they are indigenous Papuans, rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said earlier.

Sambom sent videos and photos on Tuesday to the Associated Press that showed a group of gunmen, led by Mr Kogoya, setting fire to the plane on the runway.

Sitting in the plane’s cockpit, Mr Kogoya said he took the pilot hostage as part of the struggle “to free Papua” from Indonesia.

Another video on Tuesday showed a man identified as Mr Mehrtens standing in a forest surrounded by a group of people armed with rifles, spears and bows and arrows. In a third video, the man was ordered by the rebels to say: “Indonesia must recognise Papua is independent.”

“I took him hostage for Papua independence, not for food or drinks,” Mr Kogoya said in the video with the man standing next to him. “He will be safe with me as long as Indonesia does not use its arms, either from the air or on the ground.”

Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Political, Security and Legal Affairs Mohammad Mahfud said that the government was making every effort to persuade the rebels to release Mr Mehrtens “because the priority is the safety of the hostage.”

“Taking civilians hostage for any reason is unacceptable,” Mr Mahfud said in a video statement late on Tuesday. He said persuasion is the best method to ensure hostage safety, but “the government does not rule out other efforts.”

He emphasised the government’s view that Papua is part of Indonesia.

“Papua will forever remain a legitimate part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia,” Mr Mahfud said.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said today that it was aware of the photos and video circulating “but won’t be commenting further at this stage.”


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