Phillip Mark Mehrtens, a former Jet Star pilot, was taken hostage on February 7 by members of the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Organisation. The group stormed his single-engine plane shortly after it landed at a small airport in Paro, Indonesia. The plane, which was operated by Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was carrying five passengers and about 450kg of mining supplies. The passengers were released, while the plane was set alight by the rebels.
The pilot was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers who had been building a health centre in Paro after a group of rebels, led by Egianus Kogoya, had threatened to kill them. The hostages have since released photos and videos of several gunmen setting fire to the plane on the runway, and another video of the pilot 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”.
The Indonesian government is currently developing plans to negotiate Mr Mehrtans’ release. Coordinating minister for political, security and legal affairs Mohammad Mahfud has said that the government’s priority is the safety of the hostage. He has also reiterated that Papua will remain a legitimate part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia. New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been made aware of the photos and videos circulating but have not commented further at this stage.
Conflicts between Indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the Papua region, which is a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia. Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a UN-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the region with conflicts rising in the past year, resulting in dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed.