Indonesia military ready for operation to free NZ pilot, if talks fail

Rebels in Indonesia's Papua say images show abducted New Zealand pilot in good health
FILE PHOTO-A man, identified as Philip Mehrtens, the New Zealand pilot who is said to be held hostage by a pro-independence group, stands among the separatist fighters in Indonesia's Papua region, in this undated picture released on February 14, 2023. The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB)/Handout via REUTERS

JAKARTA, Feb 16 (Reuters) - An Indonesian military commander in its restive Papua region on Thursday said a "law enforcement operation" was being prepared to free a New Zealand pilot held hostage by separatists, but only as a last resort if negotiations failed.

Indonesia was currently taking soft approaches to try to break the deadlock, said regional commander Muhammad Saleh Mustafa, with local politicians and religious figures involved in trying to secure the release of Philip Mehrtens.

Mehrtens, a Susi Air pilot, was abducted by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) last week after landing in the remote region of Nduga.

"Indonesian police and military do have a standard operating procedure in enforcing the law. To prevent this problem being prolonged we must set a deadline," Muhammad told a news conference, without elaborating.

A spokesperson for the TPNPB shared photographs and videos of Mehrtens on Wednesday surrounded by about a dozen fighters, some armed with guns and bows. Mehrtens is heard saying his captors asked for the Indonesian military's withdrawal from Papua, otherwise he would be held for life.

Separatists have waged a low-level fight for independence since the resource-rich region, once governed by the Netherlands, was brought under Indonesian control following a controversial United Nations backed referendum in 1969.

Hostage-taking has been rare and the conflict has escalated since 2018, with rebels mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks.

Muhammad did not provide details of what the operation might entail, citing confidentiality, but said police, military and intelligence officials were involved in the planning.

"The perpetrators are not from a separatist group, the perpetrators are terrorists involved in crime. That is why the military and police must enforce the law," Muhammad said.

New Zealand's embassy had given its approval for the plan, he said. New Zealand's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Late on Tuesday, Indonesia's chief security minister Mahfud MD vowed to ensure Mehrtens' release using "persuasive approaches, but said could not rule out "other ways".

Reporting by Ananda Teresia and Stanley Widianto; Editing by Martin Petty

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