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Papuan separatists blame Jakarta, Wellington for delay in NZ hostage negotiations

Benar News - January 31, 2024

Pizaro Gozali Idrus, Jakarta – Separatist rebels in Indonesia's restive Papua region on Wednesday said they would like to release a New Zealand pilot taken hostage nearly a year ago, but officials in Jakarta and Wellington were delaying negotiations for his freedom.

In response, a government spokesman said authorities did not trust the claim by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), which had initially demanded that Papua be freed from Indonesia in exchange for pilot Philip Mehrtens, and later agreed to negotiate with a third-party mediator.

Rebels in Nduga regency captured the pilot on Feb. 7, 2023, after attacking his plane and setting it on fire. Mehrtens is the longest they have held anyone captive.

"We at TPNPB headquarters agreed to release the New Zealand pilot, because he was a pilot from our neighboring country and most Australians and New Zealanders are supporters of an independent Papua," rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said in a statement.

"And we also detained him not as an enemy, but as a friend living with TPNPB troops."

BenarNews contacted Sambom for details about Mehrtens' potential release. "We're trying to find the best solution," he told BenarNews.

Sambom said the group had tried to negotiate with the governments of New Zealand and Indonesia.

Indonesian military has made efforts to search for Mehrtens but has been unsuccessful.

Four Indonesian soldiers were killed last April when rebels ambushed security forces who the military said were conducting an operation to rescue the pilot.

Mehrtens, a pilot for Susi Air, a small airline operating in remote areas of Indonesia, was kidnapped after his plane landed in Paro district, Nduga regency. The rebels freed five passengers.

The Liberation Army has been seeking independence from Indonesia since 1963, when Papua, a former Dutch colony, was annexed by Jakarta. The Free Papua Movement has waged a low-level guerrilla war against Indonesian rule ever since.

Indonesia considers Papua as sovereign territory and has rejected any calls for a new referendum. It also deployed thousands of troops and police to quell unrest, which often resulted in human rights violations and civilian casualties.

No follow-up discussions

Government spokesman Bayu Suseno, who works for a military and police task force dealing with the Papua insurgency, doubted the sincerity of Sambom's statement that the rebels would like to release the pilot.

"They want to release him? When? Why trust armed criminals?" Bayu told BenarNews.

He said the government had tasked Nduga regency's leader Edison Gwijangge, who is related to rebel leader Egianus Kogoya, to talk to the Liberation Army, but no deal had been reached.

"We put the pilot's welfare and safety first," Bayu said.

Meanwhile, Papua police spokesman Benny Ady Prabowo said he was unaware of any plan to free the pilot.

Indonesian military information chief Nugraha Gumilar and presidential adviser Theo Litaay did not respond to BenarNews requests for comment.

Sambom said the rebels held a high-level meeting in April 2023 with a New Zealand delegation in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, but there have been no follow-up discussions since.

He also said rebels received a positive response from Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to a letter they sent him last May, but there was no further action.

"We think that the New Zealand government and the Indonesian government are both unable to talk with us about freeing the Kiwi pilot, and they don't understand humanity, because for the sake of humanity we have to talk to free the New Zealand pilot," Sambom said.

The New Zealand government has not commented on the latest statement by the rebel spokesman. Its foreign ministry previously said it was working with Indonesian authorities to secure Mehrtens' release.

Papua issue 'not easy to solve'

Adriana Elisabeth, a Papua researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency, said the government is more concerned about the upcoming Feb. 14 presidential election than it is about the hostage situation.

"Whoever becomes president, the Papua problem will be a challenge that is not easy to solve. The pilot case is just one aspect of the Papua conflict," she told BenarNews.

Adriana said the release was delayed because the rebels' demand for independence in exchange for the hostage could not be met.

She added that the only path to a solution was a political dialogue held on the condition that the hostage is freed. "Without an agreement on this, it is hard to find a solution," Adriana said.Yan Christian Warinussy, spokesman for the Papua Peace Network NGO, said there had been no serious effort to free Mehrtens. "Both sides need to be sincere," he told BenarNews.

Source: https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/indonesian/hostage-talks-01312024130521.htm