In the Indonesian region of Papua, separatist fighters took a New Zealand pilot hostage and set fire to a small commercial plane after it made a landing in a remote highland area. The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and stated that the pilot would not be released until the Indonesian government acknowledged the independence of West Papua.
The military has confirmed the identity of the pilot as Captain Philip Merthens and it is unclear if the five passengers have also been taken hostage. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry and the New Zealand embassy in Jakarta have not yet issued a response to inquiries for comment.
The police in Papua province initiated an investigation into the incident and dispatched both police and military personnel to the area to search for the pilot and the five passengers. However, the area is difficult to reach and can only be accessed by plane, limiting the number of personnel that can be sent, according to the spokesperson for the Papua province police.
“We cannot send any personnel there because Nduga is a difficult area to reach. We can go there only by plane.”
The plane operated by Susi Air had safely landed early on Tuesday morning before being attacked by the rebel fighters. The TPNPB did not say directly if they had also taken the passengers hostage in their statement but did confirm that this was the second time the group had taken a hostage, with the first incident happening in 1996.
Indonesia’s easternmost provinces, including Papua, have been struggling with a continuous battle for independence since the region was brought under Indonesian control in a vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969. Since 2018, the conflict has greatly intensified, with pro-independence forces carrying out more frequent and more deadly attacks.
According to a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, the increased intensity of these attacks has been made possible by the fighters’ improved ability to obtain weapons. This has been achieved through raiding and stealing from army posts, cross-border purchases, and the illegal sale of government-issued weapons.
The founder and former Fisheries Minister of Susi Air, Susi Pudjiastuti, expressed concern for the safety of the pilot and passengers via Twitter, stating that she was praying for their wellbeing.
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