Rebels holding NZ pilot in Indonesia's Papua prepared to drop key demand

A man who is identified as Philip Mehrtens, the New Zealand pilot who is said to be held hostage by a pro-independence group, sits among the separatist fighters in Indonesia's Papua region, March 6, 2023. The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB)/Handout via REUTERS

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Separatist rebels in Indonesia's Papua region who are holding a New Zealand pilot hostage are prepared to drop a demand that Jakarta recognise the independence of the area before they could consider freeing him, a rebel spokesperson said on Thursday.

Susi Air pilot Phillip Mehrtens was abducted by the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB) in the Papuan highlands area of Nduga two months ago after a routine flight to the area.

The TPNPB said at they time the pilot would only be released in return for the Indonesian government's recognition of Papua's independence, and the withdrawal of all Indonesian troops.

But in a text message to Reuters on Thursday TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom said the group had dropped the independence demand and was instead pushing for dialogue.

"This New Zealand pilot is not our enemy so we will find a solution to release him," Sambom said.

Sambom said the TPNPB, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), had not dropped its push to see the region granted independence in the long term, but recognised the need to ensure the pilot was released soon.

"We will go through peaceful negotiations," he said.

A low-level battle for independence from Indonesia has been waged for decades in the remote and resource-rich Papua region, with the conflict between armed rebels and security forces intensifying significantly in recent years, analysts say.

Tension has simmered since a controversial 1969 vote supervised by the United Nations that saw the former Dutch territory bought under Indonesian control.

The Indonesian government said it has prioritised negotiations with religious and community leaders to secure Mehrtens' release, noting the dangers of a conducting a military operation in the rugged highland area.

"We will use our weapons only if there's a threat to the life of our troops," Donny Charles Go, a spokesperson for the military task-force formed to rescue the pilot, told Reuters.

Asked about the rebel group's apparent change in its stance, an Indonesian official said the situation remained vulnerable.

"In order to prioritise the safety and security of the hostage, the government will limit any public comments," said Jaleswari Pramodawardhani, a deputy at the presidential chief of staff's office.

(Reporting by Kate Lamb and Ananda Teresia; Editing by Ed Davies)

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