Members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) captured New Zealand pilot Captain Phillip Mark Mehrtens, in the Paro District of Nduga Regency, Papua Pegunungan Province, on 7 February 2023. Mr Mehrtens is working for the aviation company Susi Air’ and had brought five passengers from Timika town to the Paro District. Shortly after landing, TPNPB fighters captured him and burnt the aircraft, taking the pilot hostage (see photos and videos below, source: TPNPB). The five passengers were not taken captive. Neither the passengers nor the pilot was harmed.
TPNPB commander Egianus Kogeya declared in video statements that the group won’t release Mr Mehrtens until the Indonesian Government grants independence to West Papua. Kogeya underlined that the hostage won’t be harmed to achieve their political goals. However, he added that the group will not hesitate to shoot Mr Mehrtens if Indonesian security forces will try to follow them. On 9 February 2023, the TPNPB published a media release according to which the arrest of New Zealand pilot Phillip Mehrtens was carried out to “bring the ongoing state of human suffering and war in West Papua to the attention of the international media and world community”. The document lists the following conditions for Mr Mehrtens’ release:
1. New Zealand and other governments cease providing military training and weapons to Indonesia;
2. New Zealand brings this armed conflict matter to the United Nations Security Council for a lasting resolution;
3. The United Nations Security Council recognises a state of international conflict in West Papua and demands Indonesia’s withdrawal;
4. The United Nations Organisation recognises and corrects its covert misconduct in the transfer of this Territory to itself and then to Indonesia;
5. The International Criminal Court commences investigations into Indonesia’s human rights abuses in West Papua; and,
6. Indonesia withdraws all military personnel from the Territory and recognises West Papua’s independence.
The New Zealand government reacted to the incident. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade published a statement, according to which the hostage-taking remains a major priority for the government, which will closely cooperate with Indonesia to free the hostage. The government asked all parties to respect the privacy of Mr Mehrtens’ family, who is receiving consular support. On 15 February 2023, New Zealand’s police attache travelled to the Papuan town of Timika to meet with Papuan Police Chief, Mathius Fakhiri, to discuss the rescue mission in a closed-door meeting.
Mr Mehrtens’ current position is not known. The resistance fighters explained Mehrtens will stay with them in the remote jungle of West Papua until all conditions have been met. The Indonesian Government has seconded a negotiation team consisting of security force members and political figures from the Nduga regency to the Paro District to free the pilot. Police Chief Fakhiri explained that the team is expected to provide updated information on the whereabouts of Mr Mehrtens until 17 February 2023.
The coordinating minister for Political, Law and Security Affairs, Mr Mahfud MD, gave a press conference on 15 February 2023. Mahfud condemned the abduction and explained that the Indonesian government is in close contact with the New Zealand government in that matter. He stressed that the kidnapping of civilians could not be justified for any reason. Mahfud added that the security forces will follow a persuasive approach to free Mr Mehrtens, saying that the safety of the hostage remains the government’s major priority.
Several days before the incident, Egianus Kogeya’s group had threatened a group of 15 construction workers in the Paro district. The TPNPB has repeatedly called upon all non-Papuans to leave conflict zones in West Papua as they can no longer guarantee their safety. Thereupon, the 15 workers left the Paro District on 5 February 2023 and walked towards the Weah mountain, which is high enough to access the mobile phone network. The group was evacuated by a police helicopter at Weah Mountain on 8 February 2023 (see photo on the left).
Meanwhile, the last indigenous villagers residing in the Paro District have fled to the district of Kenyam in fear of armed clashes between the TPNPB and Indonesian security forces. According to media sources, 33 villagers from Paro were evacuated with helicopters on 13 February 2023.
Human rights violations often accompany security operations against the TPNPB in the central highlands. Such operations have caused the internal displacement of more than 60,000 persons. The total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Nduga Regency alone is estimated at 46,000. They have been displaced since the armed conflict re-escalated on 2 December 2018 as Kogeya’s group killed nineteen road workers in Nduga. Today, large parts of the regency have been abandoned. All health workers, teachers, village leaders, and residents have left their homes, fearing the armed conflict. Local government offices and public services only remain functional in Nduga’s largest town Kenyam and the surrounding areas.
It is unlikely that the hostage will be released through non-violent means, given the aggravating conflict violence in West Papua throughout the past two years. Both conflict parties are highly determined to pursue their goals, evene through violent means. For many years, churches and civil society leaders have called upon both sides to find a sustainable solution for the long-lasting conflict through peaceful dialogue. The TPNPB has repeatedly declared its openness to talks with Jakarta under mediation by a neutral party. However, Jakarta is not supporting peace talks in this format, neither with the TPNPB nor with the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). The Indonesian government wants to maintain a firm grip on West Papua’s natural resources, while the TPNPB will not back down from their demand for political independence from Indonesia.
Many observers are concerned that the hostage-taking may end like a similar security force operation in the Mapenduma District of Nduga Regency in 1996. On 26 January 1996, Papuan resistance fighters under the lead of TPNPB commander Kelly Kwalik captured a group of 26 biologists – among them four scientists from Great Britain and two from the Netherlands. The hostage rescue operation in the Geselama Village, Mimika Regency, on 9 May 1996 was carried out under the leadership of former special forces commander Mr Prabowo Subianto, who is holding the current position as the Indonesian Minister of Defence. Indonesian security force members reportedly killed the kidnappers and two hostages during the operation.