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Militants squabble over fate of New Zealand pilot on anniversary of his kidnapping

By Angus Watson, CNN

(CNN) — Militant rebels in Indonesia’s restive West Papua are urging their most feared comrade to release a New Zealand pilot held hostage for a year.

A group of armed fighters led by tribal warlord Eganius Koyega kidnapped Phillip Mehrtens on February 7, 2023, after his light plane landed on a delivery run in the rugged highlands of Nduga Regency in the heart of the province.

Mehrtens’ captors initially threatened to kill him unless New Zealand agreed to pressure Indonesia into allowing West Papua to secede from Indonesia, a seemingly impossible demand.

But a year on, that demand seems more distant than ever, and little is known about where Mehrtens is being held or how he’s surviving life in captivity surrounded by armed fighters, led by Koyega.

Rarely pictured without a machine gun, Koyega is a member of the West Papuan National Liberation Army (TPNPB) the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, which seeks independence.

The TPNPB is designated by the Indonesian government as a terrorist organization, and in the past, the group has taken hostages to further their cause.

But Mehrtens has been held for far longer than most captives, and now a rift has emerged between Mehrtens’ captors as to what to do with the 37-year-old husband and father.

In the lead up to the one-year anniversary of Mehrtens’s capture, the TPNPB leadership publicly pressured Koyega to release him “for the sake of humanity.” Koyega has not yet agreed.

“If the pilot dies at the hands of the TPNPB, it will be detrimental to the Papuan people who have been fighting for more than 60 years,” TPNPB Major General Terryanus Satto wrote in a statement on February 3.

Failed rescue efforts

Grainy proof of life videos sent by the rebels between February and November 2023 show Mehrtens growing thinner and more unkempt. Most often he appears surrounded by fighters armed with guns and bows and arrows.

One video shows at least a dozen guns held to Mehrtens’ head, and Koyega sporting both military fatigues and traditional dress, reflective shades and a necklace made of boar’s tusks.

The son of a West Papuan independence fighter killed by the Indonesian military,  Koyega has a reputation as a brutal paramilitary hardened by bloody clashes with Jakarta’s special forces troops.

For months, he  has led a game of cat and mouse with Indonesian soldiers through West Papua’s thick jungles as pressure builds on the Indonesian Army to free the foreign hostage.

In March 2023 Indonesian soldiers caught up to Koyega’s group, but they were pushed back after a fatal gunbattle.

Koyega has set several deadlines, threatening to shoot Mehrtens if his demands aren’t met, but hasn’t followed through.

Damien Kingsbury, an academic and conflict resolution expert who was involved in the initial negotiations to free Mehrtens, says New Zealand appears unwilling to negotiate directly with Koyega.

“There was an offer put to the New Zealand government last week to meet to discuss the process by which Mehrtens could be released, and the New Zealand government has not responded to that offer,” he said.

However, the New Zealand government this week acknowledged a new hostage video was filmed on December 22 that shows Mehrtens addressing his family from the Papuan highlands, telling them he is in good health.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said in a statement that officials are still concerned about his condition.

“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.”

“For the last year, a wide range of New Zealand Government agencies has been working extensively with Indonesian authorities and others towards securing Phillip’s release,” Peters wrote.

Meanwhile, Indonesian efforts to free Mehrtens have been “spectacularly unsuccessful,” Kingsbury told CNN.

“The Indonesian response is dictated by the Indonesian military and their view is that they will hunt down this group, kill the leaders and release Mehrtens,” Kingsbury said.

“They have had contact on a couple of occasions and Indonesian soldiers have been killed. That indicates how nimble Koyega’s group is in the field and how unable Indonesia is to resolve it militarily, which is their preference.”

CNN has approached the Indonesian military for comment on the rescue efforts.

Stalled negotiations

With New Zealand seemingly unwilling to negotiate and Indonesia unable to rescue Mehrtens, the pilot’s fate rests entirely with Koyega, who will decide whether to oblige his superiors by freeing him.

Mehrtens “fate has been in the hands of Koyega since the day he was kidnapped and it has been primarily a matter of good fortune that he has been kept alive,” Kingsbury said.

While the TPNPB leadership wants Mehrtens released as an act of magnanimity, the saga is unlikely to have an immediate impact on geopolitics.

Both regional powers New Zealand and Australia have maintained a “willful non-intervention in Indonesia’s affairs in order to keep a strong relationship with Jakarta,” says Cammi Webb-Gannon, the Coordinator of the West Papua Project at Australia’s University of Wollongong.

“They are entirely committed to recognizing Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.”

West Papua, a resource-rich former Dutch colony, was formally absorbed into Indonesia following a controversial referendum in 1969. Advocates of Papuan independence say that vote was neither free nor fair.

“Almost all indigenous Papuans will say, ’We want independence, we are part of the independence movement,’” says Webb-Gannon. “Many people see armed resistance as a last resort but a justified one,” Webb-Gannon said.

Nduga, where Koyega operates, has been turned into a warzone, Webb-Gannon says, as Indonesian troops have militarized the region in response to a massacre carried out by Koyega himself in 2018.

On December 2 that year TPNB fighters led by Koyega ambushed a construction site, killing 19 Indonesians workers there to build the Trans-Papua highway, a state-backed project intended to open up the largely inaccessible region.

The TPNB claimed the 19 killed were members of the military engineers corps, not civilian contractors.

“The military is just sending in more and more troops, people are fleeing their homes, their schools, their communities. There are ghost towns as people hide in the bush. There is mass starvation and a generation of kids out of school. There is very little access to healthcare. This is the context in which the pilot was taken hostage,” Webb-Gannon said.

As Phillip Mehrtens marks one year in captivity, Indonesians, including Papuans, are preparing to go to the polls for an election which has made West Papua a talking point, according to Human Rights Watch Indonesia Researcher Andreas Harsono.

The frontrunner is Prabowo Subianto, who in the late 1990s was a commander of an Indonesian elite special forces group that Human Rights Watch accuses of arbitrary arrests and beatings in Papua.

“Prabowo says [Indonesia] needs to increase security, as long as the West Papuan militants are fighting, creating so-called security disturbances,  [and insists] we need to be firm against them,” Harsono says.

One year after his kidnapping, the window to negotiate Mehrtens’s safe release could be shrinking.

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