02:33, Feb 08 2023
A New Zealand pilot has been taken hostage by separatist fighters in Papua province, who say they will not release him “unless Indonesia recognises and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism”.
Papuan police said soldiers and officers were searching for pilot Philips Max Marthin after independence fighters stormed the plane when it landed at a remote airport in Paro, in the mountainous district of Nduga.
Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the separatists, said independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization, attacked and set fire to the small aircraft as part of their struggle for independence. He demanded that all flights to Nduga be halted.
“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 Marthin was alive, but did not reveal his location. Five passengers who were on board, including a young child, were released because they were indigenous Papuans.
The pilot was being held because New Zealand, along with Australia and the United States, cooperate militarily with Indonesia, Sambom said.
“New Zealand, Australia and America must be held accountable for what they have done, helping the Indonesian military to kill and wage genocide against indigenous Papuans in the past 60 years,” Sambom said.
The plane, operated by Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was carrying about 450km of supplies from an airport in Timika, a mining town in neighbouring Mimika district.
Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished Papua region, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a UN-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.
Conflict in the region has spiked in the past year, with dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians killed.
Last July, gunmen believed to be separatist rebels killed 10 traders who came from other Indonesian islands and an indigenous Papuan. Sambom later claimed responsibility for the killing, accusing the victims of being spies for the Indonesian government.
Last March, rebel gunmen killed eight technicians repairing a remote telecommunications tower. In December 2018, at least 31 construction workers and a soldier were killed in one of the worst attacks in the province.
Flying is the only practical way of accessing many areas in the mountainous and jungle-clad easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua.
2) Rebels take New Zealand pilot hostage in Indonesia’s Papua province
Victor Mambor and Dandy Koswaraputra
Jayapura, Indonesia, and Jakarta
Rebels burned a small commercial plane at an airport in Papua and took its New Zealand pilot hostage on Tuesday, in the latest attack by armed separatists targeting civil aviation in the Indonesian province.
However, the fate of five Papuan passengers on the Susi Air flight was not immediately known after the plane was set on fire on the tarmac in Nduga regency.
A statement issued by the rebels made no mention of them, but a lawyer for the airline said that five passengers were on board. A spokesman for the insurgent group meanwhile told BenarNews that only non-Papuans would have been taken hostage.
In its statement, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) said it planned to hold the pilot, identified by local media as New Zealander Philip Merthens, 37, hostage.
“We TPNPB … will not release the pilot unless Indonesia sets us free from its colonization,” Egianus Kogoya, the local commander of the Liberation Army, said in the statement.
In a similar incident in 2021, Papuan rebels held hostage another Susi Air pilot from New Zealand, and his passengers, but later released them unharmed. Also that year, Papuan rebels set fire to an airplane operated by an American-Christian humanitarian organization and shot a helicopter contracted by a U.S.-Indonesian mining company during separate attacks in the region at the far-eastern end of Indonesia.
The statement from the TPBPB about the latest incident went on to say that rebels had burned a Susi Air plane at Paro district airport in Nduga regency. The statement also demanded that all flights to Nduga be stopped.
Asked about the fate of the five Papuan passengers, Kogoya told BenarNews: “They are all indigenous Papuans. If they had been non-Papuans, we would have held them.”
Susi Air owner Susi Pudjiastuti, a former cabinet minister, urged the captors to not harm the passengers and pilot.
“Please pray and give support. With all humility and for the sake of humanity, we appeal for the safety of the pilot and passengers,” Susi wrote on Twitter.
Authorities in the provincial capital, Jayapura, said they were sending a team to investigate claims that the pilot was held hostage.
“We are still investigating the veracity of this information. A lack of access to communication means that many rumors have surfaced,” said Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo, Papua police spokesman.
“It is possible that the pilot and passengers are being sheltered by the local community because the plane was set on fire and there was no means of transportation to Timika,” he said.
A lawyer for Susi Air, Donald Faris, confirmed that the plane was set ablaze by a rebel group, but said the company had not been contacted by anyone claiming responsibility for the attack.
“We are still waiting for the competent authorities … to take practical steps to be able to resolve this matter,” Donald told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Benny also said police were investigating reports that rebels have been holding 15 workers who were building a community health clinic in Nduga province since Saturday.
History of violence
Violence and tensions in Papua, a region that makes up the western half of New Guinea island, have intensified in recent years.
In July 2022, rebels killed 10 civilians, mostly traders from other parts of Indonesia, accusing them of being spies for government security forces.
It was the deadliest attack by insurgents in the region since 2018 when insurgents attacked workers who were building roads and bridges in Nduga, killing 20 people, including an Indonesian soldier. At the time, the TPNPB said those killed were not civilian workers, but soldiers from the army’s engineering detachment.
The attack prompted the government to send more troops to Papua.
The region has a history of human rights violations by Indonesian security forces and police. Papuan separatist rebels also have been accused of attacking civilians.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua, a former Dutch colony like Indonesia, and annexed it.
In 1969, the United Nations sponsored a referendum where only about 1,000 people voted. Despite accusations that the vote was a farce, the U.N. recognized the outcome, effectively endorsing Indonesia’s control over Papua.
Nazarudin Latif in Jakarta contributed to this report.
3) New Zealand pilot taken hostage in Indonesia
27 minutes ago
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 says in a statement.
A police spokesperson in Papua province, Ignatius Benny Adi Prabowo, said authorities were investigating the incident, with police and military personnel sent to the area to locate the pilot and five passengers, Reuters is reporting.
“We cannot send many personnel there because Nduga is a difficult area to reach. We can only go there by plane,” he said.
A military spokesperson in Papua, Herman Taryaman, said the pilot had been identified as Captain Philip Merthens and it was unclear if the five accompanying passengers had also been abducted.
The plane operated by Susi Air landed safely early on Tuesday morning, before being attacked by rebel fighters, authorities said.
The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement seen by Reuters, saying the pilot would not be released until the Indonesian government acknowledged the independence of West Papua – which refers to the western side of New Guinea island.
The TPNPB made no mention of the passengers, but said this was the second time the group had taken a hostage. The first incident was in 1996.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told Morning Report he had not had a full briefing yet, but the New Zealand Embassy was working on the case.
“New Zealand diplomatic officials are aware of it. They haven’t yet fully briefed me on what they know and what they are doing, but I’m aware they are working on the case.”
It was standard practice to give hostage situations minimal publicity, he said.
The New Zealand embassy in Jakarta and the Indonesian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Indonesia’s easternmost provinces 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 increased intensity of these attacks have been enabled by an improved ability to obtain more 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 report last year.
Susi Air founder and former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said on Twitter she was praying for the safety of the pilot and passengers.
RNZ has approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New Zealand for comment.