World News

NZ pilot taken hostage in Papua ‘flew dangerous routes to support family’

Wellington: A New Zealand pilot taken hostage while flying in the Papua province of Indonesia is a “family man” who would “do anything” to support his wife and child, a former colleague said.

Philip Mark Mehrtens was abducted by separatist fighters when they stormed his small commercial plane and set it alight after it landed in a remote airport in Paro, in the mountainous district of Nduga, on Tuesday. International reports initially named the pilot as Philips Max Marthin, but Stuff has been able to verify he is Philip Mark Mehrtens.

Diplomatic efforts are now under way to help Mehrtens, who is originally from Christchurch, and Papuan police said soldiers and officers were searching for him.

Papuan students protest in Jakarta in 2019.Credit:Getty Images

Mehrtens was flying for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, a company he first worked with after finishing flight school, before he returned to New Zealand in 2016, a fellow pilot and former colleague said.

The pilot said Mehrten grew up in Christchurch and trained at the International Aviation Academy at Christchurch Airport.

Mehrtens then worked overseas for eight years and married in 2012, before moving to Auckland with his wife and son in 2016 to fly for Jetstar Airways.

Three years later Mehrtens and his family moved to Hong Kong, where he flew for Cathay Dragon, a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific that ceased operations in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mehrtens went back to Susi Air, flying “dangerous pathways” that use short runways on steep hills, his former colleague said.

“It shows how much of a family person he is, putting himself at risk to earn money to support his family.

“Phil is the nicest guy, he genuinely is – no one ever had anything bad to say about him.”

The separatists say they will not release Mehrtens “unless Indonesia recognises and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism”.

Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished Papua region, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he was aware of the situation and that officials at the New Zealand embassy in Indonesia were working on the case.

“They haven’t yet fully briefed me on what they know and what they are doing, but I’m aware that they are working on the case,” he told RNZ’s Morning Report.

Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the separatists, said independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organisation, attacked and set fire to the small aircraft as part of their struggle for independence. He demanded that all flights to Nduga be halted.

“We have taken the pilot hostage and we are bringing him out,” Sambom said in a statement. “We will never release the pilot we are holding hostage unless Indonesia recognises and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism.”

Sambom said Mehrtens was alive, but did not reveal his location. Five passengers who were on board, including a young child, were released because they were indigenous Papuans.

The pilot was being held because New Zealand, along with Australia and the United States, cooperated militarily with Indonesia, Sambom said.

“New Zealand, Australia and America must be held accountable for what they have done, helping the Indonesian military to kill and wage genocide against indigenous Papuans in the past 60 years,” Sambom said.

The plane was carrying about 450 kilograms of supplies from an airport in Timika, a mining town in neighbouring Mimika district.

Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a UN-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.

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

In July, gunmen believed to be separatist rebels killed 10 traders who came from other Indonesian islands and an indigenous Papuan. Sambom later claimed responsibility for the killing, accusing the victims of being spies for the Indonesian government.

In 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.

Most Viewed in World

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article