Indonesian Officials Seek Release of Captured Airline Pilot

 - February 21, 2023, 9:42 AM
Papua rebels kidnapped Susi Air pilot Philip Mehrtens (center in blue denim jacket) and are threatening to kill him. (Image: Indonesia National Police)

Indonesian authorities remain locked in negotiations with Papuan rebels following the hostage-taking of New Zealand commercial pilot Philip Mark Mehrtens on February 7. Mehrtens was operating a Susi Air Pilatus PC-6 Porter charter flight with five passengers on board when he was overcome by the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB) at Paro sub-district airfield in highland Papua’s remote and militarized Nduga District. All the passengers were reportedly released.

The TBNPB is referred to as the Kelompok Kriminal Bersenjata (KKB) in Indonesia and is an offshoot of the separatist group, the Organisasi Papua Merdeka or Free Papua Movement, which was officially established in 1965. The region has been the center of insurgency since the early 1960s after the U.S.-facilitated New York Agreement transferred the former Dutch colony to the United Nations, and then later to Indonesia.  

The group has assumed responsibility for the kidnapping and torching of the PC-6 (tail number PK-BVY) and has threatened to kill Mehrtens unless Indonesia recognizes West Papua as an independent state. 

On Monday, the Indonesian National Police (Polri) said discussions with the TPNPB are being held through religious and community leaders, the regional government of Nduga Regency, and a joint task force formed between the Polri and the Indonesian National Armed Forces—which recently discovered equipment and other materials at a rebel camp.

Meanwhile, Paro airfield remains on lockdown with security forces on standby. According to Indonesia media reports, residents in Paro and four other districts have fled over safety concerns.

"We are continuing to try to free the Susi Air pilot. Until now there has been no request from the KKB. We are also continuing to carry out search efforts," said Kombes Ignatius Benny Ady Wibowo, Polri’s head of public relations. “We are certainly waiting for good news from the results of the dialogue. Meanwhile, there has been no confirmation from the Regional Government.”

Speaking to AIN, Ziva Narendra, director of aviation consultancy Aviatory Indonesia said Mehrten’s capture follows similar stories of hostilities in the region.

“Situations have progressively become tenser with the increase of mining activities and extraction of natural resources such as copper and gold,” Narendra said. “Several incidents of similar nature have also taken place in various regions in Papua throughout the years 2020 to 2022, where Sam Air and Dabi Air aircraft were shot at and burned by separatist groups in two different events." 

Last June, rebels opened fire on a Semuwa Aviasi Mandiri (Sam Air) Cessna 208 Caravan 675 aircraft at Kenyam Airport in Nduga Regency with both pilots narrowly escaping. The aviation occurrence followed on the heels of an airfield shooting at Kenyam some three months before.

Last May, separatists shot at a Cessna 208 cargo flight operated by Asian One Air while on approach to Aminggaru Airport in Ilaga District. The airfield served as a staging ground for clashes between the TBNPB and TNI-Polri forces in February 2022.

In 2021, two aircraft were torched at Aminggaru: a grounded helicopter operated by air logistics company Unitrade Persada Nusantara and a Cessna 208B operated by PT. Dabi Air Nusantara.

In June 2018, a Trigana Air de Havilland DHC-6-300 Twin Otter was gunned down by rebels while the aircraft was attempting to park at Kenyam airfield. Capt. Ahmad Abdillah Kamil survived a gunshot to the back; however, three civilians at the airport were fatally wounded. Three days prior, separatist rebels fired at a Twin Otter operated by charter airline Dimonim Air while on approach to Kenyam, injuring co-pilot Irene Nur Farida.

Beyond physical attacks, local carriers operating short takeoff and landing flights to remote communities in West Papua have also received multiple warnings from the TBNPB to cease operations in the region.

The ongoing insurgency in West Papua not only raises questions surrounding peace negotiations, mining activities, and the acquisition of arms among rebel groups but also highlights significant gaps in aviation safety and security along with how authorities manage aircraft accidents and serious incidents, including occurrence notification, reporting, and investigations.