Rebels take New Zealand pilot hostage in Indonesia’s Papua province

Victor Mambor and Dandy Koswaraputra
Jayapura, Indonesia, and Jakarta
Rebels take New Zealand pilot hostage in Indonesia’s Papua province A Susi Air plane prepares to take off from Jayapura airport in Papua province, Indonesia, June 17, 2011.
Romeo Gacad/AFP

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 Mehrtens, 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.


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