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

By Teele Rebane and Angus Watson, CNN

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

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.

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

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.

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.

Papua Police Chief Inspector Mathius Fakhiri previously told reporters that five passengers including a baby were on the same flight as Mehrtens, but it remains unclear what has happened to them. They were not mentioned in the latest statement.

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CNN’s Heather Chen contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Asia/Pacific

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