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Rebel group in Indonesia's Papua orders release of kidnapped New Zealand pilot

JAKARTA (Reuters) -A rebel group in Indonesia's eastern region of Papua on Wednesday ordered its armed faction deep in the jungle to release a New Zealand pilot it has held hostage in the past year.

An armed faction of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) led by Egianus Kogoya kidnapped Phillip Mehrtens a year ago when he landed a small commercial plane in Papua's remote and mountainous area of Nduga.

The central command of TPNPB said in a statement it will release the New Zealander to "protect humanity and... human rights", without citing any specific timing.

"TPNPB will return the pilot (Mehrtens) to his family through the jurisdiction of the Secretary General of the United Nations," Terianus Satto, the chief of group's general staff, said in the statement.

Sebby Sambom, spokesperson of TPNPB, said an order for the pilot's release has been issued and a team will be sent to communicate with Egianus, who is expected to follow the order or face court martial.

However, the Papua rebel group is highly factionalised and it was unclear if Egianus will agree to the command.

Benny Ady Prabowo, a spokesperson for the Indonesian police in the Papua province, said he had not been informed about such release and was skeptical.

"We suspect they raised the issue to seek attention," he said.

A spokesperson for Foreign Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand continues to work with all parties on securing Mehrtens's safe release, but declined further comment.

A low-level but increasingly deadly battle for independence has been waged in the resource-rich western half of the island of Papua since it was controversially brought under Indonesian control in a vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969.

Indonesia had sent troops to try to free Mehrtens last year, but later chose to negotiate with the rebel group, an operation that authorities say is still ongoing.

(Reporting by Ananda Teresia and Stanley Widianto in Jakarta, Lucy Craymer in Wellington; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Christian Schmollinger)