Jakarta, Feb 5 (EFE).- New Zealand’s government on Monday appealed for the immediate release of citizen Phillip Mehrtens ahead of the one-year anniversary of his capture by Papuan rebels in a remote area of the Indonesian province.
The pilot was kidnapped by fighters from the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) on Feb. 7 last year after landing a Susi Air plane in the remote Nduga regency. Five local passengers were released and the plane was set alight.
“We strongly urge those holding Phillip to release him immediately and without harm. His continued detention serves the interests of no one,” New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters said in a statement Monday.
“Let me be absolutely clear. There can never be any justification for hostage taking.”
Peters added that Mehrtens was able to contact some friends and family just before Christmas to assure them that he is alive and well, “however we are still concerned at the length of time he has been held.”
Wellington was “exploring all avenues” to bring the pilot home, the minister said, requesting privacy for his family.
The TPNPB command holding the pilot demands that Indonesia and the international community recognize Papua’s independence in exchange for Mehrtens’ release.
A statement released by the TPNPB headquarters on Saturday appeared to reveal internal differences with the local command holding the pilot.
“It is important to free this New Zealand pilot immediately,” the headquarters said, adding that the demand for recognition of independence was unrealistic.
“There is no history in this world that any country has ever been independent in exchange for… [a] hostage,” it said, adding that Mehrtens “should not be used as a bargaining position for high-level political negotiations.”
“If we release this New Zealand pilot with respect, then we will be respected by the international community and even the UN, and the dignity of the Papuan people’s struggle for independence will be raised, but if this pilot dies in a place of detention then we will be blamed by the International community and the UN.”
Mehrtens has appeared in various videos and photos released by his captors over the past year, including on Nov. 21 when the rebels again demanded Papua’s independence be recognized or else the pilot would be shot dead.
Rich in natural resources, Papua, in the east of the western half of the island of New Guinea, has been the scene of a low-intensity armed conflict between the central Indonesian state and secessionist movements since the region came under the control of Jakarta in 1969.
In previous footage released, TPNPB rebels called for the United Nations to mediate in the conflict. EFE