Philip Mehrtens: One Year in Captivity

Philip Mehrtens: One Year in Captivity


What You Need to Know:

Today marks the one year anniversary of the capture of New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens by fighters of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) under command of Egianus Kogoya. 

To mark the anniversary, senior TPNPB leadership has signaled intent to release Mehrtens and ordered Kogoya to do so, underscoring the factionalization of the movement.

The Capture:

Due to the remoteness of the Papua region of Indonesia, aircraft are often used for quick and easy transportation to villages.

On February 7, 2023, Mehrtens was piloting a small passenger plane for Susi Air when he landed in 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 and the aircraft was destroyed, with TPNPB leader Egianus Kogoya initially saying he would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papaun independence. 

Mehrtens’ aircraft was targeted because Susi flights to the region are subsidized by the Indonesian government, thus being viewed as a legitimate target by the TPNPB.

“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. In one video, Mehrtens was recorded saying “Indonesia needs to recognise Papua’s independence.” Other photos showed Mehrtens amongst TPNPB fighters and showing symbols of solidarity, although this was most likely staged, as fighters pose with weapons.

After Mehrtens’ capture, Indonesian officials quickly spun up search efforts and negotiations with local tribal leaders to secure his release. Although Mehrtens rough location was known, New Zealand officials stressed the prioritizing of negotiations to prevent potential harm to the pilot during Indonesian military operations to free him.

Failed Rescue Attempts and Negotiations

Over the next several months, Indonesian forces launched a series of failed operations to locate and rescue Mehrtens as negotiations faltered. In one instance, at least six Indonesian soldiers were killed while looking for Mehrtens during a TPNPB ambush on April 17. Several other clashes have been reported, resulting in casualties on both sides.

Meanwhile, the TPNPB signaled shifts in their demands. While initially demanding that Mehrtens would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papuan independence, the TPNPB told Reuters in April that they have dropped that demand and are seeking to negotiate the pilot’s release because he is “not our enemy.”

By May, Head of Public Relations of the Papua Regional Police, Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo, told the Indonesian media outlet Medcom that negotiations had been difficult as Kogoya “does not want to accept the invitation to negotiate” and communication had seemingly stopped. Prabowo added that Kogoya had demanded 5 billion rupiah (337,000 USD), medicine, and firearms, which was refused.

On May 31, Kogoya shifted demands again and threatened to execute Mehrtens if Indonesia did not start an international negotiation process to recognize West Papuan independence within two months.

The deadline passed and Mehrtens was still alive, with Indonesian Major General Izak Pangemanan telling Indonesian Media outlet detikSumbagsel that “We see in the photo the [Mehrtens] is not thin, the person is healthy, the clothes are always neat,” adding that “His face is not stressed, just bored. Egian takes good care of him, so what are we worried about?”

On November 20, TPNPB leader Egianus Kogoya again demanded that international negotiations to recognize West Papuan must start by January 2023 or else Mehrtens dies. Mehrtens could be seen sitting on the ground surrounded by armed TPNPB fighters as Kogoya helds a rifle to his head, marking a significant contrast in previous releases by the group. However, like the first time, the deadline passed and Mehrtens was not killed.

To mark the on year anniversary of Mehrtens’ capture, Foreign Minister Winston Peters released a statement saying “We strongly urge those holding Phillip to release him immediately and without harm. His continued detention serves the interests of no one,” adding that “We know that just before Christmas Phillip was able to contact some friends and family to assure them that he is alive and well, however we are still concerned at the length of time he has been held.”

Signal of Hope:

A year into Mehrten’s capture, central leadership of the TPNPB stated its intent to release Mehrtens “in order to protect humanity and ensure human rights” and “through the jurisdiction of the Secretary General of the United Nations.” Likewise, the TPNPB said that it has ordered Kogoya to release Mehrtens or face punishment, however, the TPNPB is highly factionalized and Kogoya could ignore the demand.

With that being said, it is likely that Kogoya will face increasing internal pressure from senior TPNPB, who now see that there is no benefit in keeping Mehrtens hostage.

Why it Matters:

The Free Papua Movement (OPM) has been vying for Papuan independence from Indonesia since the 1960s, where its fighting groups have waged a low-intensity insurgency against local military forces, as well as mining and logging companies, in the region. Fundamentally, OPM believes in complete Papuan sovereignty against colonialization, modernization, and industrialization, which it views as a threat to its indigenous culture and natural resource rich Papuan lands. Papuan separatists often carry out guerrilla-style raids, ambushes, and kidnap for ransom operations of foreigners in the country to progress their political objectives and achieve independence.

The TPNPB, an armed wing of the OPM, regularly conducts raids against military and industrial targets in the region, becoming a more recognizable group in the region due to their use of bows and arrows. The TPNPB has some more modern firearms, which are often looted from dead Indonesian troops or taken during raids against local security forces.

For the TPNPB, Mehrtens was likely their only bargaining chip in jump starting negotiations for independence, which is already far stretch. Their most realistic option would be to negotiate for Indonesian military operations to cease in the region, however, even this unlikely to happen. But now, senior TPNPB leadership signaling intent to release Mehrtens underscores how Kogoya may be acting alone moving forward if he refuses orders, creating further rifts in the TPNPB’s fighting elements.

Unbiased & Unfiltered News Reporting for 12+ years. Covering Geo-Political conflicts, wartime events, and vital Breaking News from around the world. Editor-In-Chief of Atlas News.
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