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Deputy PM Winston Peters issues plea for immediate release of Kiwi pilot Phillip Mehrtens held hostage for one year

New Zealand Herald - February 5, 2024

Benjamin Plummer – Foreign Minister Winston Peters has appealed for the immediate release of New Zealand pilot Phillip Mehrtens nearly a year after his capture in Papua, Indonesia.

The Susi Air pilot was taken hostage by West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB) fighters on February 7 last year, shortly after landing on a remote Paro airstrip in Nduga, Highland Papua.

In a statement today, Peters called for those holding Mehrtens to immediately release him "without harm". "His continued detention serves the interests of no one." Peters said.

Peters said Mehrtens was able to contact some friends and family just before Christmas to assure them that he was alive and well. "However we are still concerned at the length of time he has been held."

A range of government agencies had been working with Indonesian authorities over the past year to secure Mehrtens' release. The response, led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, had also been supporting his family.

"Let me be absolutely clear. There can never be any justification for hostage-taking," Peters said.

The father-of-one was carrying five passengers, including a baby, from Mozes Kilangin Airport in Mimika, in Central Papua, to Paro Airport in Nduga.

Susi Air founder and former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia Susi Pudjiastuti told the Herald Mehrtens was one of the airline's best pilots.

A friend and former colleague had described Mehrtens as a "quiet and serious" man who was originally from Christchurch.

He is married to a woman of Indonesian descent and had been living in her home country for quite some time. He speaks fluent Bahasa, the main language spoken in Indonesia.

Peters said he had spoken with the Mehrtens family recently and assured them the Government was exploring all avenues to bring him home. "They have requested privacy and I'd ask that their wishes are respected," he said.

The Kiwi appeared in a video in April flanked by his separatist rebel captors calling on Indonesia to stop air strikes in Nduga. He said the actions were unnecessary and put his life and lives of other innocent people at risk.

In another video that circulated on social media in November, Mehrtens was surrounded by armed men. The video said Mehrtens had been given two months to live before he would be shot dead.

However, West Papua spokesman Akouboo Amatus Douw said the video dated back to May or June and Mehrtens remained in good health.

"I just received a message from our teamwork [sic] just a few minutes ago and they said that he is still alive, he is very healthy at [the] moment," Douw said last week.

"We, the liberation fighters, gave him very good hospitality, which is if he needs some medication or water or food or whatever, they [will] always provide since they captured him in February.

"We have our own humanitarian team inside the TPNPB so that team looks after him. His wellbeing and welfare is a top priority."

Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished Papua region, 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 United Nations-sponsored ballot widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into the Papua and West Papua provinces.

[Benjamin Plummer is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He has worked for the Herald since 2022.]

Source: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/deputy-pm-winston-peters-issues-plea-for-immediate-release-of-kiwi-pilot-phillip-mehrtens-held-hostage-for-one-year/X4KVY3UZMFDP3CMJRTUEAFRECY