It has been over three months since New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens was taken captive by separatist fighters of the West Papua National Liberation Army- Free Papua Organization (TPNPB- OPM). Amid several failed attempts to rescue the Kiwi, negotiations do not appear to be making headway between the separatists and Indonesian officials.
Mehrtens, pilot of Susi Air, was captured on February 7 after landing at the village of Paro, located in the Papuan highlands. 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 initially saying he would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papaun independence.
Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB) merilis video dan sejumlah foto kondisi terbaru Pilot Susi Air, Philip Mark Mehrtens yang telah satu bulan terakhir mereka sandera. pic.twitter.com/yCBdaoL1TD
— Kang Melanesian? (@onanpeyon_) March 10, 2023
“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.”
Over the coming days and weeks, TPNPB would release several proof of life photos and videos of Mehrtens.
After Mehrtens’ capture, Indonesian officials quickly spun up search efforts and negotiations with local tribal leaders to secure his release. New Zealand officials initially stressed the prioritizing of negotiations to prevent potential harm to the pilot, who maintains that he is in “good health.” Over the past several weeks, however, Indonesian forces have launched a series of failed attempts to rescue Mehrtens, resulting in clashes and casualties on both sides. In one instance, at least six Indonesian soldiers were killed while looking for Mehrtens during a TPNPB ambush on April 17.
Negosiasi aparat dengan pimpinan Kelompok Kriminal Bersenjata (KKB) Egianus Kogoya berlangsung alot. Negosiasi dilakukan dalam upaya pembebasan pilot Susi Air Philip Mehrtens yang sudah disandera selama tiga bulan.#SusiAir https://t.co/ZcQRXHB5C6
— medcom_id (@medcom_id) May 15, 2023
While TPNPB initially demanded that Mehrtens would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papuan independence, they signaled to Reuters in April that they have dropped that demand and are seeking to negotiate the pilot’s release because he is “not our enemy.”
Head of Public Relations of the Papua Regional Police, Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo, told the Indonesian media outlet Medcom that negotiations have been difficult as Kogoya “does not want to accept the invitation to negotiate” and communication has seemingly stopped. Prabowo added that Kogoya had demanded 5 billion rupiah (337,000 USD), drugs, and firearms, which was refused. He finished by saying that Indonesian officials and local leaders are still trying to keep negotiations alive as military forces continue to search for Mehrtens.