Rebels in Indonesia’s restive Papua release NZ hostage video calling for UN mediation

A New Zealand pilot being held hostage by separatists in Indonesia’s Papua region has appeared in videos calling for the United Nations to mediate in the conflict in the resource-rich region.

Pilot Phillip Mehrtens, who works for the domestic Susi Air service, was abducted by the armed wing of Free Papua Movement (OPM) last month after landing at an airstrip in Nduga district.

“OPM requests the United Nations to mediate between Papua and Indonesia to work towards Papuan independence,” Mehrtens said in one of three videos, echoing an earlier statement in which he said he would only be released if Papua became independent.

Reuters could not independently verify where and when the videos were taken. OPM spokesperson Sebby Sambom said they were shot on March 6.

Papua has seen a separatist insurgency since the region, which was once governed by the Netherlands, was brought under Indonesian control following a UN-supervised vote in 1969 that critics say was flawed.

Foreigners have rarely been abducted in the region, but the conflict has escalated since 2018, with rebels mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks.

J.O. Sembiring, an Indonesian military commander in Papua, told reporters on Friday the footage was “propaganda” and authorities were continuing to search for Mehrtens.

When asked about the OPM’s call for UN mediation, he said, there is “no negotiation with terrorists by the state.”

Officials have sought to use dialogue to secure Mehrtens’ release, saying a “law enforcement operation” would be the last resort.

In one video, Mehrtens read out a statement while sitting in a jungle clearing and surrounded by a group of men, some with guns and one with a bow. Wearing a blue jacket, beige trousers and a camouflage hat, Mehrtens said he had been instructed to read the statement.

“No foreign pilots are permitted to work and fly in Papua until Papua is independent,” he said.

In another, a separatist called on New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia to halt military cooperation with Indonesia.

Mehrtens also asked that any salary he was owed be given to his family for food and bills.

“Try not to worry about me. I am being taken care of as well as can be expected given the situation,” he said in a video, adding he was getting enough food and water, warm clothes and medicine.

“Hopefully we can be together soon,” he said.

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