Indonesian rebels say they’re ready to free a New Zealand pilot taken hostage a year ago

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Separatist rebels in Indonesia’s restive Papua region expressed their readiness Wednesday to release a New Zealand pilot who was taken hostage a year ago.

Independence fighters led by Egianus Kogoya, a regional commander in the Free Papua Movement, stormed a single-engine plane on a small runway in Paro and abducted Philip Mark Mehrtens on Feb. 7, 2023. The pilot from Christchurch was working for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air.

Kogoya said the group would not free Mehrtens unless Indonesia’s government allowed Papua to become a sovereign country.

But Terianus Satto, a leader of the Free Papua Movement’s armed wing, said in a Wednesday statement that the West Papua Liberation Army, known as TPNPB, was willing to let Mehrtens go and expected the United Nations to facilitate. Satto did not give a time frame for a possible handover.

“In order to protect humanity and ensure human rights, the management of the national command headquarters of the the West Papua Liberation Army will return Philip Mark Mehrtens to his family,” the statement said.

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Videos and photos that the rebels sent to media outlets on Wednesday showed a disheveled and emaciated long-haired man sitting barefoot on a wooden log while flanked by two men brandishing rifles.

In one video, the guarded man is wearing a black sweater and shorts. Speaking to the camera, he says the date is Dec. 22.

“The commander has said he’s able to help with a couple things for me,” he says before going on to ask for a medicine inhaler “just in case I get some asthma, and if possible, can I please get an e-book reader?”

The TPNPB’s statement on Wednesday came several days after the armed wing said it had asked Kogoya to let the pilot go and suggested there had been a response to the appeal.

Spokesperson Sebby Sambom said Friday that the national command had asked Kogoya to release Mehrtens despite what it saw as a lack of effort by New Zealand and Indonesia to secure his freedom.

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“There is no history in this world that any country has ever been (granted) independence in exchange with a hostage,”Sambom said.

In April, armed separatists attacked Indonesian army troops who were deployed to rescue Mehrtens. The group sent a letter the next month to Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Sambom said they received a response indicating that Widodo would negotiate with the TPNPB, but there was no further communication.

In 1996, the Free Papua Movement abducted 26 members of a World Wildlife Fund research mission in Mapenduma. Two kidnapped Indonesians were killed by their abductors, but the remaining hostages were freed within five months.

Papua is Indonesia’s easternmost region and a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia . Conflict has spiked there in the past year, with dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed.