Hostage fallout: Supplies to Papua disrupted as Indonesian airline halts most flights

Nazaruddin Latif and Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Hostage fallout: Supplies to Papua disrupted as Indonesian airline halts most flights Susi Pudjiastuti, owner of Susi Air (right), speaks to reporters in Jakarta, March 1, 2023.
[Eko Siswono Toyudho/BenarNews]

The supply of essential goods in Indonesia’s restive Papua region has been disrupted in recent weeks as a regional airline halted nearly 70% of its flights after one of its pilots was taken hostage by separatist rebels last month.

On Wednesday, Susi Pudjiastuti, owner of Susi Air, said many pilots are scared to fly because pilot Philip Mehrtens was taken hostage on Feb. 7.

The number of daily flights in Papua has dropped to between five and 15 from between 30 and 40, she said at a news conference in Jakarta.

“I, as the founder and owner of Susi Air, apologize to the people of Papua, the local government, and Susi Air customers in Papua whose flights have been disrupted,” she said.

“The presence of Susi Air is very significant in Papua and now with this incident … it’s sad, we’re also at a loss. Because we also transport fuel, transport food, transport all kinds of things needed, bring sick people for treatment, bring government programs for the advancement of Papuan society.”

Susi said her airline’s presence in Papua is vital in transporting fuel, food, and medicines to remote areas.

“These pioneering routes are determined by the government to be flown and are 65% subsidized by the government, so the tickets are very cheap, only 250,000 rupiah ($16),” Susi said.

Members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) last month released videos where the group said it would kill pilot Mehrtens, a New Zealand national, if government security forces came for them. The rebels demanded independence from Indonesia in exchange for releasing the hostage.

Authorities have sent a negotiation team to secure Mehrtens’ release, but Jakarta recently said it would not rule out a military operation to rescue him.

The New Zealand government said it was cooperating with Indonesian authorities to ensure the pilot’s safety.

Wamena riot victims demand compensation

In a separate development, a soldier was killed and two others were injured when suspected separatist rebels ambushed a military patrol in Papua’s Yahukimo regency on Wednesday, a provincial military spokesman said.

Soldiers patrolling on motorcycles were intercepted and shot by gunmen, resulting in an exchange of fire, Col. Herman Taryaman said.

Meanwhile, the families of victims of a deadly Feb. 23 riot in Wamena, in the highlands regency of Jayawijaya, are demanding 5 billion rupiah (U.S. $327,720) for each person who died and 1 billion rupiah ($65,500) for each of those who were injured in accordance with traditional customs, said Arim Tabuni, a relative of one of the victims.

Twelve people were killed after security forces opened fire to quell rioting after rumors circulated that a child had been kidnapped, police said. Police said two people who died suffered arrow and stabbing injuries.

Papua police chief Mathius Fakhiri said 16 officers who were on duty during the riot had been investigated by the internal affairs division, adding 13 people who were arrested during the riot have been released.

“We do not want the arrest of the 13 individuals to be used as an excuse by some people to take action that may result in casualties,” he said.

Papua, in Indonesia’s far-eastern region, is home to a decades-old insurgency that has heated up in recent years. 

The region, in the western half of New Guinea island, is notorious for human rights abuses committed by members of the Indonesian police and security forces. Armed separatist Papuan rebels have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region.

Six years later, only about 1,000 people voted in the United Nations-sponsored referendum, called a sham by locals and activists. The U.N. accepted the vote, essentially endorsing Jakarta’s rule.


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