Alarming photos show downed Kiwi pilot captured by armed rebels in remote Pacific region, after they set fire to his plane

15 February 2023, 09:38

The pilot was surrounded and his plane was burned
The pilot was surrounded and his plane was burned. Picture: West Papua Liberation Army

By Kit Heren

Chilling photos released by separatists in a remote Pacific region controlled by Indonesia show a downed pilot surrounded by armed men.

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Thomas Mehrtens was taken hostage by separatist West Papua Liberation Army rebels in the Papua province of Indonesia, on the northern side of Western New Guinea, on February 8.

Now the separatists have released photos of Mr Mehrtens surrounded by armed men, some holding bows and arrows, as they demanded that Indonesia recognise their independence, and that the pilot's native New Zealand cut ties with Indonesia.

"We will never release the pilot we are holding hostage unless Indonesia recognises our sovereignty and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism," spokesman Sebby Sambom said in a statement released last Tuesday.

The rebels surrounding Mr Mehrtens
The rebels surrounding Mr Mehrtens. Picture: West Papua Liberation Army

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Indonesia has said it is seeking to secure Mr Mehrtens' release through discussions with community leaders, although officials did not rule out other methods.

The rebels burning the plane
The rebels burning the plane. Picture: West Papua Liberation Army

New Zealand has said Mr Mehrtens' family is being supported by consular officials.

Mr Mehrtens' ordeals began when he landed the single-engine plane in Paro, a town in the remote, mountainous province of Nduga, before being overwhelmed by the rebels.

They let the five passengers go, but seized the pilot, although they promised to treat him humanely.

In a video released to the BBC but not published, Mr Mehrtens appeared to read a statement repeating the separatists' demands.

Mr Mehrtens in Papua
Mr Mehrtens in Papua. Picture: West Papua Liberation Army

The rebels' dispute dates back to the 1960s, when Indonesia took control of Papua, a former Dutch colony.

Papua had declared independence in 1961, but Indonesia took it over in 1969 after a controversial referendum sponsored by the United Nations.

Conflict in the region has spiked in the past year, with dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed.

Last July, gunmen believed to be separatist rebels killed 10 traders who came from other Indonesian islands and an indigenous Papuan.

Mr Sambom later claimed rebel responsibility for the killing, accusing the victims of being government spies.

Last March, rebel gunmen killed eight technicians repairing a remote telecommunications tower.

In December 2018, at least 31 construction workers and a soldier were killed in one of the worst attacks in the province.

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