Indonesian military forces say they have located and surrounded the area where New Zealand Pilot Phillip Mehrtens is being held by separatist fighters of the West Papua National Liberation Army- Free Papua Organization (TPNPB- OPM), but are holding off a rescue operation as negotiations continue.
On February 7, Mehrtens was piloting a small passenger plane to the remote village of Paro in the remote Papuan highlands. Upon landing, the aircraft was quickly surrounded by TPNPB fighters, who released the five civilian passengers because they were indigenous Papuans. Mehrtens was taken captive, with TPNPB leader Egianus Kogoya saying he would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papaun independence.
“We’re taking the pilot hostage, not for anything else, but for Papua’s freedom,” Kogoya said in a video statement, adding “He will be safe with me as long as Indonesia does not use its arms, either from the air or on the ground.”
The TPNPB released pictures and videos of Mehrtens as proof of life on February 14. In one video, Mehrtens was recorded saying “Indonesia needs to recognise Papua’s independence.”
After Mehrtens’ capture, Indonesian officials quickly spun up search efforts and negotiations with local tribal leaders to secure his release. Although Mehrtens was located two weeks after his capture, New Zealand officials stressed the prioritizing of negotiations to prevent potential harm to the pilot, who is said to currently be in “good health.” It is unclear how negotiations are going, but direct military intervention remains on the table to rescue Mehrtens if they fail.