(VitalNews.org) – West Papua has disputed Indonesia’s claim over the territory since 1962 when the Netherlands agreed to cede control of the former colony to the United Nations under duress in the New York Agreement. After decades of disputes and political chicanery, rebels with the West Papua Liberation Army (WPLA) took a New Zealand pilot hostage. They burned his plane after he landed in Paro on Tuesday, February 7, demanding independence for West Papua.
When Phillip Mehrtens landed in the isolated Nduga district with five passengers, Egianus Kogoya, a rebel leader of the WPLA, and his group kidnapped the Susu Air pilot. According to Sebby Sambom, an insurgent spokesman, the rebels released the passengers because they were all indigenous Papuans but kept the pilot as a bargaining chip. Mehrtens had planned to evacuate 15 construction laborers assembling a nearby health center.
The rebels had threatened to kill the workers. They hid in a priest’s house for several days awaiting the evacuation. Rebels captured the workers at the airport on February 7, but security forces successfully rescued them the following day. Namia Gwijangge, the Nduga district chief and one of the five passengers released, speculated that the evacuation plan provoked the WPLA. They responded by destroying the plane and kidnapping Mehrtens. Gwijangge told media outlets, “We deeply regret this incident.”
Sambom released photos and videos of Mehrtens after a week of captivity. Kogoya has promised to treat the pilot humanely, but he also warned Indonesian forces against firing on the group in a thinly veiled threat against his captive’s life. Mehrtens read a scripted statement during the video, asking for West Papua’s independence, for the Indonesian military to withdraw, and for international recognition of West Papua as an independent state.
Mohammad Mahfud, Indonesia’s Political Affairs Minister, replied with a statement of his own. In part, he said, “Papua will forever remain a legitimate part… of the Republic of Indonesia.” He added, “Taking civilians hostage for any reason is unacceptable.”
Mahfud and other officials are trying to persuade the rebels to release Mehrtens. Papua Regional Police Chief Mathius Fakhiri concurred, telling media outlets the government was working with tribal, community, and religious leaders attempting to intercede with the insurgents for the pilot’s release.
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