Indonesia prepares 'last resort' plan to free captive pilot in Papua

Indonesia prepares ‘last resort’ operation to free New Zealand pilot held captive by spear-wielding Papua rebels after they warned he would be executed if army attempted a rescue

  • Pilot Phillip Mehrtens was taken captive last week by rebel forces in West Papua
  • He’s being held as a bargaining chip in a push for independence from Indonesia
  • Rebels have threatened to execute him if Indonesian troops try to rescue him 

An Indonesian military commander in its restive Papua region on Thursday said a ‘law enforcement operation’ was being prepared to free a New Zealand pilot held hostage by separatists, but only as a last resort if negotiations failed.

Indonesia was currently taking soft approaches to try to break the deadlock, said regional commander Muhammad Saleh Mustafa, with local politicians and religious figures involved in trying to secure the release of Philip Mehrtens.

Mehrtens, a former pilot for Australia’s Jetstar airlines now flying for Indonesian company Susi, was abducted by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) last week after landing in the remote region of Nduga.

A spokesperson for the TPNPB shared photographs and videos of Mehrtens on Wednesday surrounded by about a dozen fighters, some armed with guns and bows. 

Mehrtens is heard saying his captors asked for the Indonesian military’s withdrawal from Papua, otherwise he would be held for life. The rebels meanwhile have claimed they will execute the pilot if any rescue attempts are made.

‘Indonesian police and military do have a standard operating procedure in enforcing the law. To prevent this problem being prolonged we must set a deadline,’ Muhammad told a news conference, without elaborating.

Mehrtens is seen in the denim jacket surrounded by heavily armed rebels

Mehrtens was captured  by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) last week

In a clip released by the group Mehrtens explains he is being held while the rebels fight for independence from Indonesia

Separatists have waged a low-level fight for independence since the resource-rich region, once governed by the Netherlands, was brought under Indonesian control following a controversial United Nations backed referendum in 1969.

READ MORE: Rebels threaten to EXECUTE New Zealand pilot if Indonesian troops try to rescue him 

Hostage-taking has been rare and the conflict has escalated since 2018, with rebels mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks.

Muhammad did not provide details of what the operation might entail, citing confidentiality, but said police, military and intelligence officials were involved in the planning.

‘The perpetrators are not from a separatist group, the perpetrators are terrorists involved in crime. That is why the military and police must enforce the law,’ Muhammad said.

New Zealand’s embassy had given its approval for the plan, he said. New Zealand’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday from Reuters.

Late on Tuesday, Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD vowed to ensure Mehrtens’ release using ‘persuasive approaches, but said could not rule out ‘other ways’.

The rebel behind Mehrtens’ capture was revealed earlier this week as a 23-year-old ‘psychopath’ terrorist whose violent separatist group is reportedly responsible for one of the region’s worst massacres.

The group’s leader, Egianus Kogoya, is holding him as a bargaining chip to boost his rebels’ efforts to win independence from Indonesia. 

The TPNPB took responsibility for the infamous Nduga massacre of 2018, in which 31 Indonesian workers employed by a state-owned construction company to build a bridge in the Nduga district were rounded up, held hostage and slaughtered.

The group’s leader, 23-year-old Egianus Kogoya (above holding hands with Phil Mehrtens in a ‘proof of life’ video) is regarded by some as a psychopath since he carried out the massacre of 31 workers while a teenager in 2018

Friends and family of Phil Mehrtens (above with his wife Maria and their son) are facing an anxious wait as he is held in remote western Papua by violent separatist group KKB led by a ‘psychopath’ terrorist

Meanwhile, Mr Mehrtens’ anxious wife Maria and their son are praying for his release amid warnings that the pilot, who previously flew for Australia’s Jetstar Airways, will ‘die here like the rest of us’ if Indonesian troops attempt to rescue him.

Worried friends have also posted on Instagram: ‘Pray for Phillip’ and ‘Oh God, have mercy’. 

Kogoya held hands with Mr Mehrtens during a chilling ‘proof of life’ video in which rebels armed with machine guns, spears and bows and arrows called for the Indonesian military to leave the province.

The TPNPB released photographs and a video of Mr Mehrtens raising his fist as if in solidarity with them and saying in faltering Bahasa Indonesian language: ‘The Indonesian military must leave. If they don’t leave I will not be released’.

In English, the pilot said: ‘The Free Papua Movement has captured me. The Papuan military has taken me captive in the effort to fight for Papuan independence. 

‘They have asked for the Indonesian military to go home back to Indonesia and if not I will remain captive or my life is threatened.’ 

Mr Mehrtens landed a single-engined Susi Air commercial passenger flight on a tiny airstrip in Paro, Nduga in the Papua Mountains on February 7, with Kogoya’s TPNPB fighters storming the plane shortly afterwards.

The aircraft was scheduled to pick up 15 workers Kogoya had threatened to kill, according to Nduga district chief Namia Gwijangge. 

Egianus Kogoya (above taking over Mr Mehrtens plane before setting it alight) and his TPNPB group are held responsible for 65 crimes since 2018, when they shot dead 15 building workers

Rebel leader Kogoya (centre, with the Free Papua Movement’s banned morning star flag and clasping hostage Phil Mehrtens’s hand) stayed close to the abducted pilot after torching his plane and threatening to kill him

TPNPB fighters led by Kogoya poured fuel on the single-engined Susi Airlines aircraft and then set it alight, destroying Mr Mehrtens’ hopes of fleeing the remote West Papuan province

Kogoya was videoed attacking the cockpit of the plane before fuel was poured on the craft and it was set alight. 

Nduga is the same region where the TPNPB accepted responsibility for the 2018 massacre of workers building a bridge who were taken hostage on Free Papua Day and shot dead.

The rebels then attacked Indonesian Army helicopters trying to evacuate survivors.

Papua Regional Police have recorded that in the past five years the TPNPB has committed 47 acts of shooting, eight of assault, three of massacre, two of arson as well as assaults, sexual assaults threats and murder.

On Susi Airlines’ Instagram page, fellow pilots and others posted hopes that a meeting would be held with the TPNPB and he would be recovered soon.

‘Hopefully the proud pilot of Susi Air will soon be found safe and the government can be braver with TPNPB terrorists,’ one supporter posted online. 

The separatist rebels from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), seized Mr Mehrtens before setting fire to his plane on the runway (pictured)

Phillip Mehrtens was kidnapped shortly after touching down in Paro in the remote West Papuan province of Nguda

However, one of the group’s fighters has repeated warnings Mr Mehrtens’ liberty depended on the Indonesian government withdrawing its troops and granting it independence. 

‘We are taking the pilot and will only release him when Papua is free. If not the pilot will die with us in our territories with our commander, Egianus Kogoya, the fighter said, according to The Australian.

‘We will not release him unless we get freedom of Papua. Every country must open their eyes and acknowledge the freedom of Papua. 

‘The military and police of Indonesia must not pursue us, if they do we will shoot the pilot.’

In another video, Kogoya personally insisted Mr Mehrtens is safe and urges the military not to launch a rescue operation.

‘I will … ensure his safety, so Indonesia should not use its arms from above or on the ground. If the pilot is with me, he’ll be safe,’ he said.

But Kogoya has previously lashed out, even at those politicians who claim to be fighting for the same cause, a free West Papua.

He has issued furious rebukes, saying at one point, ‘we are fighting desperately in the forest for an independent Papua, but those of you who live abroad claim to be diplomats, but only for the benefit of seeking profit from us’.

His TPNPB group has warned any foreigners entering 12 declared war zones within the Papua Highlands and Central Papua provinces would be considered legitimate hostage targets.       

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