Separatists in Indonesia’s Papua region who took a New Zealand pilot hostage in February have told authorities to stop searching for him, and to start negotiating.
Philip Mehrtens was kidnapped after landing his plane in Papua’s remote mountainous province of Nduga.
He is being held by West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) fighters.
“The pilot is still with us,” TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom told BBC Indonesian in a message.
“The Indonesian government has to be bold and sit with us on a negotiation table and not [deploy] military and police to search the pilot,” he added.
He denied reports that the group was prepared to drop a demand for the Indonesian government to recognise Papuan independence before they could consider freeing him.
The Reuters news agency reported on Thursday that Mr Sambom indicated this could be the case.
“The demand for Papua’s independence has already conveyed from a long time ago. That demand will not be perished, that’s the main demand of Papua nation,” Mr Sambom said.
Previously a Dutch colony, Papua declared independence in 1961, but Indonesia took control two years later.
The resource-rich region has been caught in a battle for independence ever since it was brought under Jakarta’s formal control in a UN-supervised vote in 1969.
Mr Mehrtens was kidnapped after his small passenger plane, which belongs to Indonesia’s Susi Air, landed in Nduga in early February.
His plane had departed from the Mozes Kilangin airport in Central Papua, and was meant to return a few hours later after dropping off five passengers.
But shortly after landing, rebels stormed the single-engine plane and seized the Christchurch native.
The TPNPB later told BBC Indonesian that Mr Mehrtens had been moved to a stronghold district for the group in a remote area, and he would be used as “leverage” in political negotiations.
The group said the pilot was being held because New Zealand co-operates militarily with Indonesia.
The other passengers, who were indigenous Papuans, were released.
Around a week later the separatists released video footage of Mr Mehrtens reading a prepared statement in which he repeated the rebels’ demands.
Papuan rebels seeking independence from Indonesia have previously issued threats and even attacked aircraft they believe to be carrying personnel and supplies for Jakarta.
Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and the Indonesian authorities are common, with pro-independence fighters mounting more frequent attacks since 2018.
The region is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua. It is separate from Papua New Guinea, which was given independence by Australia in 1975.
Source : BBC