Pro-independence rebels in Indonesia’s Papua province have seized a New Zealand pilot as hostage after setting a small commercial plane on fire when it landed in a remote Highlands airstrip earlier today, say news agency reports.
A police spokesperson in Papua province, Senior Commander Ignatius Benny Adi Prabowo, said authorities were investigating the incident claimed by a militant West Papuan group at Paro airstrip in Nduga.
Police and military personnel have been sent to the area to locate the pilot and five passengers, the news agencies report.
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“We cannot send many personnel there because Nduga is a difficult area to reach. We can only go there by plane,” Commander Prabowo said.
AP reports that rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said independence fighters from the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the military wing of the Free Papua Organisation (OPM), had stormed the plane shortly after it landed.
“We have taken the pilot hostage and we are bringing him out,” Sambom said in a statement.
“We will never release the pilot we are holding hostage unless Indonesia recognises and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism.”
Reuters news agency identified the pilot as Captain Philip Merthens.
Unclear about passengers
A military spokesperson in Papua, Lieutenant-Colonel Herman Taryaman, said it was unclear if the five accompanying passengers had also been abducted.
The plane, operated by Susi Air, landed safely early this morning, before being attacked by the rebel fighters, authorities said.
The TPNPB made no mention of the passengers in its statement, but said this was the second time the group had taken a hostage. The first incident was in 1996.
The New Zealand embassy in Jakarta and the Indonesian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A struggle for independence in the resource-rich Indonesia’s Melanesian provinces has been waged since Indonesian gained control in a vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969, but condemned by many West Papuans as a “sham”.
New Zealand pilot taken hostage in Indonesia, say Papua rebel group https://t.co/1JGHhNHKou
— ST Foreign Desk (@STForeignDesk) February 7, 2023
The conflict has escalated significantly since 2018 with a build-up of Indonesian forces and with pro-independence fighters mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks.
Susi Air founder and former Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said on Twitter she was praying for the safety of the pilot and passengers.
Mohon dukungan & dia semoga pilot kami di Nduga Paro diberikan lindungan Alloh SWT .. bisa kami jemput selamat 🙏🙏🙏https://t.co/iR71EzAjnL
— Susi Pudjiastuti (@susipudjiastuti) February 7, 2023
RNZ has approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New Zealand for comment.
— Phil Gurski (@borealissaves) February 7, 2023