Indonesian security forces say they have surrounded armed rebels holding a New Zealand pilot captive in the restive Papua region but will refrain from taking any action that could endanger his life.
Security minister Mahfud MD said Tuesday that New Zealand authorities have asked for there to be no violence in the operation to free pilot Philip Mehrtens, according to CNN affiliate CNN Indonesia. The pilot was captured last month after landing a commercial Susi Air charter flight at the remote Paro Airport, with the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claiming responsibility.
“We already know their location. Now they are under siege,” Mahfud told reporters, adding: “We are prioritizing his safety. We must be careful,” CNN Indonesia reported.
Mahfud did not elaborate on the group’s location or what measures security forces would take.
The Indonesian military maintains a heavy and controversial presence in Papua, which came under Jakarta’s control following a widely disputed 1969 vote overseen by the United Nations. Unrest in the impoverished but resource-rich region has escalated in recent years as separatist fighters demand independence.
The TPNPB, designated by the Indonesian government as a terrorist group, has previously said that Merthens would not be released until Jakarta acknowledged Papuan independence and withdrew its troops from the region, which shares an island with the country of Papua New Guinea.
An additional demand from the separatist group for firearms and ammunition had been rejected by authorities, Mahfud said, according to CNN Indonesia.
Photos released by the TPNPB in February showed Mehrtens apparently unharmed, standing alongside armed fighters.
The operation to rescue him has been complicated by the presence of civilians in the area, security forces said.
“It is not easy to catch this group as they are mingling with locals,” military chief Admiral Yudo Margono told reporters, according to CNN Indonesia. “But we will prioritize persuasive measures.”