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New Zealand pilot held hostage in Indonesia formerly flew for Jetstar in Auckland

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A New Zealand pilot who is being held hostage by a rebel group in Indonesia is understood to be a former Jetstar pilot, with a wife and young son.

Captain Philip Mark Mehrtens was taken hostage after landing at a remote airport on Tuesday in Nduga in Indonesia’s West Papua province, on the island of New Guinea.

He was flying for Indonesian airline Susi Air and had five passengers on board, who are believed to have been freed.

A fellow pilot and former colleague told New Zealand news outlet Stuff that Mehrtens, 37, first worked for Susi Air after finishing flight school but returned to his home country in 2016.

It is understood Mehrtens had grown up in Christchurch and underwent his pilot training there, but moved to Auckland with his wife and son when he returned to New Zealand in 2016 to fly for Jetstar.

He is also understood to have moved to Hong Kong in 2019 to fly for Cathay Dragon, a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific, before it ceased operations in 2020.

The former colleague told Stuff that Mehrtens had been flying “dangerous pathways” that used short runways on steep hills at Susi Air.

“It shows how much of a family person he is, putting himself at risk to earn money to support his family,” the fellow pilot said.

“Phil is the nicest guy, he genuinely is – no one ever had anything bad to say about him.”

Susi Air founder and former Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti asked for prayers and support, writing on Twitter that she hoped they would be able to pick their pilot up safely.

The West Papuan National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack on Mehrtens and threatened to kill him if the government in Jakarta did not recognise the independence of West Papua – which refers to the western side of the island of New Guinea.

“We want to convey that we have taken this pilot hostage and brought it to the TPNPB headquarters which is far from the airfield area,” a spokesman for the group, Sebby Sambom, told The Australian in a statement.

“This pilot is a citizen of New Zealand. TPNPB considers New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, America, Europe, all are responsible.

“The US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand has supported the Indonesian government, trained the Indonesian National Police, supplied weapons to kill us West Papuans from 1963 to today. They must be held accountable.”

On Wednesday, a group of construction workers were rescued by Indonesian authorities amid the search for Mehrtens.

Regional military commander Brigadier General J.O. Sembiring said the workers, who came from other Indonesian islands to build a health centre in the area, had been hiding out in a priest’s house since Saturday after the rebel group threatened to kill them, according to the Associated Press.

When questioned about the hostage situation in a press conference on Wednesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said “consular support is being provided to the family”.

“The New Zealand embassy in Jakarta are leading the New Zealand government’s response on this issue and that’s really all I’m in a position to say publicly about that at the moment,” he said.

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