March 10, 2023
JAKARTA – Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Adm. Yudo Margono has turned down New Zealand’s offer of assistance in an operation to release the New Zealander pilot who has been held hostage by an armed Papuan rebel group in Nduga regency, Papua Highlands, for about a month.
Yudo said New Zealand Ambassador to Indonesia Kevin Burnett had offered assistance during the ambassador’s visit to the TNI headquarters in Cilangkap, East Jakarta, last week.
“He offered to help, but I am still able to complete [the rescue mission],” Yudo told reporters on the sidelines of an event on Wednesday that was posted on YouTube. “He [the ambassador] hoped that no harm would come to the pilot. He hopes that the pilot will survive.”
But Yudo did not provide further details on what kind of assistance Burnett brought to the table, except “diplomacy”. Prior to the offer New Zealand diplomats had reportedly traveled to Papua to monitor the negotiation process by Indonesia.
Yudo also reiterated that what was happening now was a law enforcement operation, not a military operation, and that they would continue with persuasion and patience to protect local civilians in the area.
“The TNI is currently still able to handle the problem of rescuing the Susi Air pilot following the government policy to resolve it with a soft approach,” TNI spokesperson Cdre. Kisdiyanto told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.
The authorities had chosen to allow negotiations with the rebels to continue as fears grew that the use of force in any rescue attempt would only repeat the errors made in previous operations that went awry.
Nduga acting regent Namia Gwijangge and local religious and tribal leaders have also been assigned to negotiate with the captors for the pilot release.
Susi Air pilot Phillip Mark Mehrtens of New Zealand 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 and arrows. Mehrtens is heard saying his captors asked for the TNI’s withdrawal from Papua, otherwise he would be held for life.
According to Papua Police chief Insp. Gen. Mathius Fakhiri, the rebel group demanded the delivery of guns and ammunition in exchange for the release of Mehrtens. The authorities rejected that demand, saying doing so would only further aggravate the security situation in the region.
Late last month, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD said security forces had located the group holding the pilot but would refrain from actions that might endanger his life.