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Video released by Papuan fighters holding NZ pilot hostage warns 'ordeal could go on for a long time'

ABC News - March 10, 2023

Anne Barker, Indonesia – It is now more than a month since Captain Philip Mehrtens was seized and taken hostage after he landed a small Susi Airlines plane last month in the remote highlands of central Papua.

In a video message released on Friday morning by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), Captain Mehrtens says he has been "really worried" about Maria and Jacob, his wife and young son.

With a trembling voice, he assured them he is being looked after as well as possible.

"Maria and Jacob, I love you and miss you both very much," he said in the video. "I think about you every day. Try not to worry about me."

He said he has been taken care of "as well as can be expected" given the situation and is being given enough food and water.

He says he has also been provided with some warm clothes and any medicines as required, due to his "lack of conditioning" for the "long walks" they take.

These walks likely refer to measures the rebels have taken to avoid detection by Indonesian military forces.

Indonesian authorities last month claimed they knew the pilot's exact location and were about to launch a rescue mission, until New Zealand asked them to abandon the plans to avoid any violence.

Rebel group releases three videos

In his message, Mr Mehrtens shared his hopes that he would be reunited with his family "very soon".

The 37-year-old pilot also asked for his salary to be paid directly to his family so they would "have money for food and bills".

New Zealand's ambassador to Indonesia, Kevin Burnett, last week offered assistance to Indonesia to help free the pilot.

But Indonesia's military commander, Admiral Yodo Margono, turned the offer down, saying he is still able to complete the rescue mission.

He says Indonesian forces will continue with "persuasion and patience", so as to protect local civilians in the area.

However, Indonesian media reports last month said New Zealand had sent diplomats to the area to assist in efforts to secure Mr Mehrtens's release.

The rebel group, which is the armed wing of the Free Papua Organisation (OPM), insists it will not release the pilot until Indonesia grants full independence over the entire Papua region.

Armed Papuan groups have been fighting their integration with Indonesia since the 1960s, but their fight has become more violent in the past few years, with other hostages taken and dozens of people killed in clashes between rebels and Indonesian forces.

In another video recording, Mr Mehrtens conveyed a message from the rebels to the Indonesian government.

"OPM requests the United Nations to mediate between Papua and Indonesia to work towards Papuan independence. OPM will release me after Papua is independent."

The separatist group also used the New Zealander to warn other foreign pilots not to come to Papua.

In a third video, one of the rebels called on New Zealand to raise the ongoing conflict in Papua with the UN Human Rights Commission.

A spokesperson for New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the ministry was aware of the video.

"We continue to do everything we can to secure a peaceful resolution and the safe release of the hostage," the spokesperson said.

"We are also supporting the family of the New Zealander, both here in Aotearoa and in Indonesia. They have asked for privacy at this incredibly challenging time."

'What happened was a surprise'

The founder of Susi Airlines last week said she would "fight with everything" to secure the pilot's freedom.

"What happened was a surprise, and I am deeply concerned and astounded," said Susi Pudjiastuti.

Sebby Sambom, a spokesman from the rebel group, gave a separate assurance that Mr Mehrtens is "fine, safe and healthy".

In 2021, Indonesia designated Papuan separatist rebels as a terrorist group.

It says Papua has been its territory since a 1969 United Nations-sponsored vote backed the region's integration into Indonesia.

Pro-independence groups say the vote was a sham because it involved only 1,025 hand-picked people.

Last year, UN human rights experts expressed serious concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Papua and West Papua, citing "shocking abuses against Indigenous Papuans, including child killings, disappearances, torture and mass displacement of people".

They called for "urgent humanitarian access to the region", and urged the Indonesian government to "conduct full and independent investigations into abuses against the Indigenous peoples".

A hostage raises his arm in solidarity with Papua rebel fighters.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-10/papuan-fighters-release-message-from-nz-pilot-hostage/10208027