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Church leaders ask Papuan rebels to free NZ pilot

The separatist group is using Philip Mehrtens, taken hostage on Feb. 7, to bargain with western-led international community

Philip Mark Mehrtens has been held hostage by a Papuan rebel group since Feb. 7 to get international attention for its freedom struggle

Philip Mark Mehrtens has been held hostage by a Papuan rebel group since Feb. 7 to get international attention for its freedom struggle. (Photo: Youtube)

Published: March 28, 2023 11:32 AM GMT

Updated: March 29, 2023 04:26 AM GMT

Church leaders in Indonesia’s Papua province have asked the separatist group to release a New Zealand pilot, held hostage for nearly two months to garner international support for the Papuan independence movement.

"This act of hostage-taking cannot be justified by traditional norms and the Christian faith that we recognize as a guide in today's life," said an open letter issued by Papua Church Council on March 27. 

Philip Mark Mehrtens, 37, a pilot for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, has been held hostage by the West Papua Liberation National Army – Free Papua Organization (TPNPB-OPM) since Feb. 7 in Nduga Regency in Papua Highlands. 

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The Church council said the delay in releasing Mehrtens will give the Indonesian government legitimacy to deploy more troops in Papua and to set up more security bases in the region.

The Church leader said they were worried about the pilot's condition as attempts by the Indonesian government to free the pilot, including through diplomatic routes involving New Zealand, failed. 

On its part, New Zealand has sent three diplomats to monitor the search for the pilot.

"We demand that this inhumane treatment stop. Remember, Christ is present in weak people, namely those who are naked, poor and those who are in prison," the council said.

The rebels stormed Mehrtens' single-engine plane, carrying five passengers, in the remote Nduga district. The plane was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers. The rebels released the passengers because they were indigenous Papuans and later burnt the plane.

The rebels sent videos and photos to the Associated Press that showed them setting fire to the plane on the runway. Flying is the only practical mode of transport in many parts of the mountainous Papua province.

Taking Mehrtens hostage has caused panic among residents in many districts who have fled their homes, fearing the possibility of an armed conflict between security forces and the separatists.

Those who are displaced are suffering from shortages of essential items. We ask Egianus Kogoya, TPNPN-OPM leader, “to release the pilot so that these people can return” to their homes, the Council said.

Father John Bunay, head of the Jayapura Diocese's commission for justice and peace, told UCA News on March 28 that this crisis should best be resolved by promoting dialogue and "putting weapons aside."

"It would be wise if the Indonesian government withdrew its troops in the effort to free this pilot” and involve other parties as mediators. The president “can announce a humanitarian pause," he said.

"Religious leaders can also be involved in establishing direct communication," the priest added.

A former Dutch colony, Papua declared independence in 1961, but Indonesia annexed the territory soon. An independence referendum that followed was widely manipulated in favor of Indonesia. Since then, a low-level insurgency is lingering in the mineral-rich easternmost province. 

The conflict has risen recently with dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed. President Joko Widodo has initiated many pro-people programs to tame the rebels.

In a video statement, Sebby Sambon, spokesperson for TPNPB-OPM, stated the pilot would not be released until New Zealand and other countries such as Australia, the United States and European Union stop arming the Indonesian police against Papuans.

"On that basis, the pilot will be a guarantee for the United Nations, Europe, America and Australia” to speak, he said.

In another video, Mehrtens read out a statement that asked foreign pilots not to fly to Papua until it becomes independent.

He also urged the United Nations to become a mediator. 

"[They]... will release me after Papua becomes independent," he said in the video.


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