New Zealand pilot taken hostage by separatist fighters in Indonesia’s Papua region

‘We will never release the pilot we are holding hostage unless Indonesia recognizes and frees Papua’

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Wednesday 08 February 2023 07:10 GMT
Related: Indonesia police admit using snakes to interrogate Papuan man

A New Zealand pilot has been taken hostage by separatist fighters after setting fire to a plane carrying six passengers in Indonesia’s remote Papua region.

Fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization, stormed the plane shortly after it landed on Tuesday in the mountainous district of Nduga.

Pilot Philip Mark Mehrten was taken hostage by a group of fighters led by group commander Egianus Kogeya as part of their struggle for independence, rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said. The passengers, including a young child, were released because they were indigenous Papuans.

Separatists have long called for the independence of the West Papua province from Indonesia. Papua was incorporated into the country in 1969 after an UN-sponsored ballot that received heavy criticism.

Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua. The conflict escalated last year, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians.

“We have taken the pilot hostage and we are bringing him out,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We will never release the pilot we are holding hostage unless Indonesia recognizes and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism.”

Mr Sambom said the pilot is alive without providing his location.

Papua police spokesperson Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo said soldiers and police were searching for the pilot and passengers. “We cannot send many personnel there because Nduga is a difficult area to reach. We can only go there by plane,” he said.

The plane, operated by Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was reportedly carrying about 450kg of supplies from an airport in Timika, a mining town in neighbouring Mimika district.

New Zealand prime minister Chris Hipkins said the embassy in Indonesia is working on the case. “I don’t have any other details at this point that I can share,” he told Radio New Zealand.

The rebels claimed the reason behind abducting the New Zealander was that Wellington, along with Australia and the US, cooperate militarily with Indonesia.

“New Zealand, Australia and America must be held accountable for what they have done, helping the Indonesian military to kill and genocide indigenous Papuans in the past 60 years,” the spokesperson added.

Ahead of the ambush, police received information from the local administration in Nduga over the weekend that 15 construction workers who were building a health center in Paro village had been captured by rebels.

“We are trying to coordinate with the involvement of community leaders. Hopefully we can negotiate to release those who are being held hostage,” Papua police chief Mathius D Fakhiri said.

He added that authorities “are now trying to communicate” with the rebels.

Rights group Amnesty International condemned the attacks on civilians and public facilities and urged the rebels to release the hostages.

“The plane arson attack and taking hostages are once again evidence of the repetition of violence in the Papua region and civilians are again the victims,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

“We call for a review of the security approach that has been chosen by the state so far.”

At least 10 traders and an indigenous Papuan were killed by separatist gunmen in July last year. In March, rebels killed eight technicians repairing a remote telecommunications tower.

In December 2018, at least 31 construction workers and a soldier were killed.

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