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Pilot taken hostage in West Papua sends message to wife and son one year after capture

Pilot taken hostage in West Papua sends message to wife and son one year after capture

A New Zealand pilot taken hostage in remote jungle has sent a heartbreaking message to his wife and son a year after he was captured by guerrillas.

Philip Mark Mehrtens, a 38-year-old former Jetstar pilot, appeared gaunt and scruffy in the hostage video released by the West Papua Liberation Army who kidnapped him in February 2023.

Mr Mehrtens was captured after he landed his small plane at the Paro airport in the remote highlands of the Nduga regency in Papua – a region at the heart of a decades-long war led by separatists against Indonesia.

In the footage, a nervous Mr Mehrtens said: “I’m OK, they are treating me well. I’m trying to stay positive and I hope that you and Jacob are healthy and doing OK and getting support.

“I love you both lots and miss you both lots and hope to be able to talk with you soon,” he added.

Philip Mark Mehrtens, 38, sits inbetween two West Papua Liberation Army soldiers after he was captured last year (Supplied)
Philip Mark Mehrtens, 38, sits inbetween two West Papua Liberation Army soldiers after he was captured last year (Supplied)

The video was taken on 22 December 2023, with the rebels waiting weeks before sharing it today. Mr Mehrtens explained he had met with the “komandant”, likely a reference to commander Egianus Kogoya, who is fighting against the Indonesian annexation of the territory.

The pilot also said he would talk to the commander about making a phone call to his family. It was not clear if this phone call was ever made.

It comes just weeks after the rebel group said it had asked commander Kogoya to release Mr Mehrtens.

“Using the pilot as a guarantee for an independent Papua at a fixed price is absolutely impossible to happen,” TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom said.

Mr Sambom said there was no precedent for such an exchange, urging Kogoya to retract his previous statements and let the pilot go.

The former pilot stands next to a West Papua Liberation Army rebel (Supplied)
The former pilot stands next to a West Papua Liberation Army rebel (Supplied)

“There is no history in this world that any country has ever been independence in exchange with a hostage,” he said.

Papua, the world’s third-largest island country and a resource-rich region, was formerly a Dutch colony before it was controversially brought under Indonesian control in a widely criticised vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969.

Its easternmost provinces have been battered with a low-level battle for independence, but the conflict escalated significantly since 2018, with pro-independence fighters conducting deadlier attacks.

At least 10 traders and an indigenous Papuan were killed by separatist gunmen in July 2022. In March, rebels killed eight technicians repairing a remote telecommunications tower.