Rebels in Indonesia’s West Papua region have said they will release a New Zealand pilot who was taken hostage a year ago as a bargaining chip for their independence movement.
The chief of general staff of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-PB), Terianus Satto, said in a statement the pilot would be released in order to protect humanity and safeguard human rights.
It was unclear when Mehrtens would be released.
New Zealand’s ministry of foreign affairs and trade did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The news came after New Zealand’s government appealed for his release. On Monday, Winston Peters, New Zealand deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, said Mehrtens’ continued detention served no one’s interests. “We strongly urge those holding Phillip to release him immediately and without harm,” Peters said.
Guerrilla fighters in the central highlands of restive Papua, who want the province declared independent from Indonesia, kidnapped Mehrtens after he landed a small commercial passenger plane at the remote Paro airport in the mountainous area of Nduga on 7 February 2023.
One year on from the kidnapping, very little is known about where Mehrtens is being held or what conditions he is living in. Updates from his captors have been scant, offering only that his welfare is “top priority” and he is healthy and well fed. Meanwhile, Mehrtens’ family has declined to speak.
“We know that just before Christmas Phillip was able to contact some friends and family to assure them that he is alive and well, however we are still concerned at the length of time he has been held,” Peters said.
Speaking to Indonesian magazine Tempo on 2 February, a rebel spokesperson said the movement would announce an update on the condition of the pilot this week, adding that Mehrtens was healthy. “He’s fine. He eats well,” he told the publication.
The case has drawn renewed attention to a long-running and increasingly deadly conflict in resource-rich Papua that has unfolded since it was brought under Indonesian rule. During his captivity, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-PB) – the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) – has circulated videos and photos of Mehrtens, along with demands for the region’s independence.
The area where Mehrtens is being held remains an extremely dangerous place for West Papuans. TPN-PB regularly launch attacks and engage in skirmishes with the Indonesian security forces and the Indonesian military has been accused of brutality, including torture and murder of civilians.
There is also a much larger, peaceful civil movement for independence in the region – which stems from Indonesia’s violent repression of West Papuans.
In May 2023, the rebels threatened to kill Mehrtens if their demands for independence talks were not met within two months. Many news outlets chose not to broadcast the videos, in which Mehrtens stated the group’s demands.
In the video, Mehrtens held the banned Morning Star flag, a symbol of West Papuan independence, and was surrounded by Papuan fighters brandishing rifles.
Papua police said last year that they had struggled to access the isolated and rugged highland terrain where Mehrtens was believed to be held. The authorities were prioritising peaceful negotiations, including deploying tribal and church figures, police chief Mathius Fakhiri said.
Peters said the government has been working with Indonesian authorities towards securing Mehrten’s release and has been supporting his family. “Let me be absolutely clear. There can never be any justification for hostage taking,” said Peters.
He said he had spoken to the Mehrtens family recently, and assured them the government was exploring all avenues to bring Phillip home. “They have requested privacy and I’d ask that their wishes are respected.”
New Zealand news outlet Stuff reported that Mehrtens – 37 when he was kidnapped – grew up and was trained as a pilot in New Zealand. In recent years, he lived in Bali with his wife and child, according to Stuff.
Mehrtens was originally from the city of Christchurch, according to the New Zealand Herald. He is fluent in Bahasa and was one of a number of expatriate pilots employed by Indonesia airline Susi Air, the newspaper said.
At the time of Mehrtens’ kidnapping, Sebby Sambom, a rebel spokesperson, said independence fighters stormed the Susi Air plane shortly after it landed, setting fire to the aircraft and seizing its pilot. Sambom said all five passengers, including a young child, were released because they are indigenous Papuans.
He added that the pilot was being held because New Zealand, along with Australia and the United States, cooperates militarily with Indonesia. The plane was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers building a health centre in Paro, after a group of separatist rebels threatened to kill them, said Nduga district chief Namia Gwijangge.
Last week, Sambom said Mehrtens had not been released because the Indonesian and New Zealand governments have not wanted to talk to the armed group.
“We have opened up but the Indonesian and New Zealand governments don’t want to talk to us, so we don’t know the reason.”
The conflict in Papua has escalated significantly since 2018, with pro-independence fighters mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks, largely because they have managed to procure more sophisticated weapons. It began after the region was controversially put under Indonesian control in a vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969.