Indonesia President Joko’s Papua visit sparks fresh hope in hostage saga of NZ pilot

Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo (centre) arrives at Jacksons Airport, PNG, July 6, 2023

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo will visit the far-eastern province of Papua this week after flagging his government is working to secure the release of a New Zealand pilot detained for five months.

Philip Mark Mehrtens — a pilot for a charter plane company — was ambushed by rebels after he flew to a remote airstrip to drop off some passengers and pick up a group of construction workers.

The rebels then destroyed the plane, and have released several videos of Mehrtens since. While an unsuccessful attempt by Indonesia’s military to rescue him in April led to between one and six deaths, according to conflicting reports.

Widodo’s visit to the regional capital Jayapura is officially related to a festival, but it comes as his government tries to use what it calls “cautious” negotiations to free the 37-year-old.

Ahead of his departure for a three-leg trip taking in Australia, Papua New Guinea and then Papua,  Widodo said the government had used “significant actions” to try to secure Mr Mehrtens’s release, but declined to reveal them.

He reiterated that his government would continue to try negotiate with the separatist group holding Mehrtens.

Indonesia’s military has pledged to involve religious and local leaders to try to convince the rebels to peacefully let Mehrtens go.

This week police revealed for the first time they had set aside up to US$500,000 for a potential ransom payment, if required.

Police spokesman Ignatius Benny Any Prabowo said the rebel leader holding Mehrtens, Egianus Kogoya, requested the ransom amount not long after kidnapping Mehrtens in February.

Previously the rebel group had only publicly demanded independence for Papua as the condition to release Mehrtens.

The commander of Indonesia’s National Armed Forces, Admiral Yudo Margono, also said this week he would not oppose the payment of a ransom to resolve the matter, and said he would leave the negotiation process to a local political leader.

But he also said getting the local leader, Edison Gwijangge, to the remote highland area where Mehrtens was being held in central Papua was not easy because no pilots were willing to risk flying there.

Complicating matters too is a statement from the West Papua National Liberation Army rejecting that the rebels who kidnapped Mehrtens demanded a ransom.

The group is the umbrella organisation waging a decades-long armed struggle for independence in Papua.

“We don’t have many demands. Our only condition is that New Zealand is willing to sit down and talk with us so we can convey our feelings,” West Papua National Liberation Army spokesperson Sebby Sambom said.

“The location for the meeting with New Zealand can be determined later, as well as the meeting with Jakarta … we will send a team of facilitators.

“After that, we can arrange the release of the pilot, because our commander in chief has agreed to release him.”

A spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the ABC “the welfare of Mehrtens is our top priority”

New Zealand officials are “doing everything we can to secure a peaceful resolution and Mehrtens’s safe release, including working closely with the Indonesian authorities and deploying New Zealand consular staff”, they said.

“We are also supporting Mehrtens’s family, both here in Aotearoa and in Indonesia. “They have asked for privacy at this incredibly challenging time”.

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