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Separatist rebels set fire to a small plane carrying six people after it landed at a remote airport in Indonesia’s Papua province and took its pilot, a New Zealand citizen, hostage.
Rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organisation, stormed the plane shortly after it landed in Paro in Nduga, a mountainous district.
Sambom said the fighters, led by group commander Egianus Kogeya, set fire to the plane and seized Mehrtens as part of their struggle for independence.
He said all five passengers, including a young child, were released because they are indigenous Papuans.
“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 is alive but did not provide his location.
“New Zealand, Australia and America must be held accountable for what they have done, helping the Indonesian military to kill and genocide indigenous Papuans in the past 60 years,” Sambom said.
Mehrtens grew up in Christchurch and trained at the International Aviation Academy at Christchurch Airport, a former colleague of the Kiwi pilot said.
Mehrtens was working for Susi Air, flying “dangerous pathways” that use short runways on step incline hills, his friend told Stuff.
“It shows how much of a family person he is, putting himself at risk to earn money to support his family,” he said.
“Phil is the nicest guy, he genuinely is – no one ever had anything bad to say about him.”
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.
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.
Dozens killed in the past year
Papua police spokesperson Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo said soldiers and police were searching for the pilot and passengers.
The plane, operated by Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was carrying about 450 kilograms of supplies from an airport in Timika, a mining town in neighboring Mimika district.
Conflict in the region has spiked in the past year, with dozens of rebels, security forces and civillians killed.
Last July, gunmen believed to be separatist rebels killed 10 traders who came from other Indonesian islands and an indigenous Papuan.
Satellite images reveal devastation as baby pulled from rubble
Sambom later claimed responsibility for the killing, accusing the victims of being spies for the Indonesian government.
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.
Flying is the only practical way of accessing many areas in the mountainous and jungle-clad easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua.
– Reported with Associated Press