New Zealand hostage pilot appears in photos with armed West Papua rebels

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JAKARTA: Separatist fighters in Indonesia’s restive Papua region have released a series of photos showing a pilot from New Zealand who was taken hostage more than a week ago, reported CNN.

The photos released on Tuesday show the pilot, identified by local police as Philip Mehrtens, standing fully clothed and apparently uninjured among a group of fighters who are holding guns, bows and arrows and other weapons.

Last week, Mehrtens was captured after landing a commercial Susi Air charter flight at Paro Airport in the remote highlands of the Nduga regency, with the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claiming responsibility and saying it had burned his plane.

Mehrtens of Christchurch, a pilot for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was abducted by independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, who stormed his single-engine plane shortly after it landed on a small runway in Paro in remote Nduga district.

The plane, carrying five passengers, was scheduled to pick up 15 construction workers who had been building a health center in Paro after a group of separatist rebels led by Egianus Kogoya threatened to kill them, said Nduga district chief Namia Gwijangge, reported NBC News.

The rebels released all five passengers because they are indigenous Papuans, rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said earlier.

Meanwhile, as per reports, separatist said he would not be released until the region is granted independence.

The group previously demanded that all incoming flights to Paro Airport be stopped and said the pilot would not be released until the Indonesian government acknowledged Papuan independence, reported CNN.

The TPNPB released the photos of Mehrtens on its Facebook page along with a statement reiterating its position.

“TPNPB has admitted the responsibility for the burning of the plane and taking hostage of a Susi Air pilot who is a citizen of New Zealand, and we keep our promise and are politically responsible,” it said in the statement.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told CNN it was “aware of the photos and video circulating but won’t be commenting further at this stage.”

Separatist fighters in Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua – a former Dutch colony – have been demanding independence since the region was brought under Indonesian control following a controversial 1969 vote overseen by the United Nations.

However, fighting in the impoverished but resource-rich region, where the Indonesian military maintains a heavy presence, has escalated in recent years.

The Indonesian government designates the TPNPB as a terrorist group. (ANI)

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