Almost three months after West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) members captured New Zealand pilot, Captain Phillip Mark Mehrtens, TPNPB spokesperson Mr Sebby Sambom circulated a press release and new video of the pilot to international media outlets and the New Zealand Government. The release calls for journalists to report on the conflict situation in West Papua to ensure that the international community and the Indonesian people are aware of the ongoing military operation and its potential risks. The video shows Captain Mehrtens sitting between two TPNPB members (see video below).
In the video, Mehrtens confirmed that he is healthy, receiving enough food and water. His statement indicates that he constantly moves with the TPNPB combatants through the dense tropical rainforest in the remote Nduga Regency. However, he expressed concern about the Indonesian Army and Police carrying out bombings in Nduga, endangering him and other civilians in the area. He called upon the Indonesian government to stop the bombings.
The press statement calls for the release of the pilot through negotiations rather than military operations. It urges the Indonesian President to stop the military operation in Nduga immediately, as the armed clashes could endanger the life of the New Zealand pilot.
Captain Mahrtens was taken hostage in the Paro District of Nduga Regency, Papua Pegunungan Province, on 7 February 2023. The TPNPB commander, Mr Egianus Kogeya, declared in previous video statements that Mr Mehrtens won’t be released until the Indonesian Government grants independence to West Papua. Kogeya underlined that the hostage wouldn’t be harmed to achieve their political goals. However, he added that the group would not hesitate to shoot Mr Mehrtens if Indonesian security forces followed them.
Armed clashes in the Mugi District of Nduga Regency on 15 and 16 April 2023 have resulted in the death of at least five army members. The TPNPB claimed the number of victims reached 15 soldiers. The Indonesian military has not confirmed this figure. The soldiers were part of a group seconded to Mugi to free the New Zealand hostage. According to the national police chief, Listyo Sigit Prabowo, 965 security personnel have been deployed to Nduga to free Captain Mark Mehrtens.
Shortly after the incident, the Indonesian Chief of Armed Forces, General Laksamana Yudo Margono, announced that the mode of operations against the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) was switched from a “soft approach” to “ground combat operations.” Observers predicted an aggravation of the conflict weeks ago after the Indonesian military deployed more than 2,000 additional personnel to West Papua in March 2023 alone. Heavy troop deployments continued throughout April 2023, allowing the prediction that the armed conflict in West Papua will again exacerbate in the coming months.
Reacting to the deployment of additional security force personnel to West Papua, the TPNPB published a press release on 22 April 2023. The Chairman of the TPNPB-OPM Diplomatic Council, Mr Akouboo Amatus Douw, called upon the international community, particularly the governments of New Zealand and Australia, to supply TPNPB forces with weapons and logistics for upcoming armed clashes with Indonesian troops.