March 1, 2023
JAKARTA – The Indonesian security forces are set to conduct a long-term operation to rescue the New Zealand pilot who has been held hostage by an armed Papuan rebel group in Nduga Regency, Papua Highlands, for more than 20 days.
Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Adm. Yudo Margono said he had no plan to deploy additional troops to the restive regency to help with the rescue operation, which he said would continue to be carried out “persuasively” to protect the local civilians.
“We do not set any target. The [armed criminal groups] are interspersed with the locals, including children, to protect themselves. We will try to carry out [the rescue operation] persuasively. We do not want the local community to become collateral because of it,” he said as quoted by kompas.com on Monday.
New Zealand pilot Phillip Mark Mehrtens was captured by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) led by Egianus Kogoya on Feb. 7 after landing in Nduga, along with several Indonesian passengers, who were later released. The group, which is linked to the Free Papua Movement (OPM), has demanded that Jakarta recognize Papuan independence in return for Mehrtens’ release and has used the ongoing hostage crisis as a way to internationalize its political cause.
A spokesperson for the TPNPB shared photographs and videos of Mehrtens surrounded by about a dozen fighters, some armed with guns and bows. Mehrtens is heard saying his captors asked for the TNI’s withdrawal from Papua, otherwise he would be held for life.
Nduga acting regent Namia Gwijangge and local religious and tribal leaders are still negotiating with the captors for Mehrtens’ release, according to Yudo. New Zealand diplomats had reportedly traveled to Papua to monitor the negotiation process.
The military commander has said that the authorities had chosen to allow negotiations with the rebels to continue as fears grew that the use of force in the rescue attempt would only repeat the errors made in previous operations that went awry.
The fact that the TPNPB members have blended with the local civilians has been cited as the primary obstacle for the whole operation. “It is not easy to nab this group,” Yudo said.
Cendrawasih Military commander Maj. Gen. Muhammad Saleh Mustafa told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday that the security forces in Papua had managed to take over the camps and routes used by the abductors as well as their belongings.
“[We will run the operation] until the pilot can be safely freed. That is our top priority. Arresting Egianus Kagoya is the next priority,” he said.
Jakarta has refused to grant Kogoya’s demands. Last week, Papua Police chief Insp. Gen. Mathius Fakhiri said the rebel group demanded the delivery of guns and ammunition in exchange for the release of Mehrtens. The authorities have rejected the demand, saying doing so would only further aggravate the security situation in the region.
1996 hostage crisis
This is the second incident involving a foreign hostage after the first hostage crisis incident in Nduga in 1996.
A group of OPM rebels led by Kelly Kwalik kidnapped 26 people, including seven foreigners. The ordeal lasted from Jan. 8 to May 15, 1996. During the hostage crisis, the government engaged in a long negotiation with the rebels before resorting to a dramatic seven-hour military operation led by the then-commander of the army’s special forces (Kopassus), Prabowo Subianto, to rescue the 11 remaining prisoners, including four British scientists.
Eight OPM fighters and two Indonesian captives were killed in the rescue operation that involved 100 Kopassus members, according to the Independent.
Conflict between security forces and indigenous Papuan rebels has simmered for decades in the country’s easternmost region, which remains among the most impoverished despite its rich mineral deposits. More recently, flaring tensions amid the stalemate in the pilot’s rescue mission have forced authorities to evacuate local residents from parts of Nduga. (ahw)
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct errors.