Separatist fighters in Indonesia’s Papua region have taken a New Zealand pilot hostage after setting a small commercial plane alight when it landed in a remote highland area on Tuesday, a pro-independence group said in a statement.
A police spokesperson in Papua province, Ignatius Benny Adi Prabowo, said police and military personnel were sent to the area to locate the pilot and five passengers.
“We cannot send many personnel there because Nduga is a difficult area to reach. We can only go there by plane,” he said.
Rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organisation (OPM), stormed the plane shortly after it landed in Paro in Nduga, a mountainous district.
Sambom said the fighters, led by group commander Egianus Kogeya, set fire to the plane and seized its pilot, Philips Max Marthin, as part of their struggle for independence. He said all five passengers, including a young child, were released because they are indigenous Papuans.
“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.”
Sambom said the pilot was alive but did not provide his location. He said the pilot was being held because New Zealand, along with Australia and the United States, 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,” Sambom said.
The plane operated by Susi Air had landed safely early on Tuesday morning, before being attacked by rebel fighters, authorities said.
The OPM previously staged a hostage-taking in 1996.
“The New Zealand embassy in Indonesia is working on the case,” New Zealand’s prime minister, Chris Hipkins, told Radio New Zealand. “I don’t have any other details at this point that I can share.”
New Zealand embassy officials were providing consular assistance to the pilot’s family, a statement from the foreign ministry said.
Indonesia’s provinces of Papua and West Papua – which share an island with independent Papua New Guinea – have been wracked with a low-level battle for independence since the resource-rich region was controversially brought under Indonesian control in a vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969.
The conflict has escalated significantly since 2018, with pro-independence fighters mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks.
The increasingly intense attacks have been enabled by an improved ability to obtain weapons, including by raiding and stealing from army posts, cross-border purchases and the illegal sale of government-issued weapons, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict said in a 2022 report.
Susi Air founder and former Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said on Twitter she was praying for the safety of the pilot and passengers.
With Reuters and Associated Press