Separatists Took a New Zealand Pilot Hostage. Now They’re Using Him to Barter for Independence.

Separatists Took a New Zealand Pilot Hostage. Now They’re Using Him to Barter for Independence.

All five passengers on the plane, including a young child, were released because they are indigenous Papuans, according to the separatists. Photo: ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images.

Separatist fighters in Indonesia’s Papua region have taken a New Zealand pilot hostage, setting his plane on fire after it landed in a remote highland area on Tuesday. 

The pilot, who has been identified as Captain Philip Merthens, was flying the small Susi Air plane from Mimika, in Central Papua province, to Nduga, a mountainous and highly militarised district, when he was attacked by militants from the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB), according to police and members of the group.

TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom said independence fighters stormed the plane and took Merthens hostage in retaliation for support provided by Western nations to Indonesian security forces. Now, they’re threatening to kill Merthens unless the Indonesian government recognises West Papua as an independent state.

“Pilot is still alive and he will be held hostage for negotiations with Jakarta, if Jakarta is obstinate, then Pilot will be executed to dead [sic],” Sambom said in a statement posted to Facebook on Wednesday morning.

“We will take the New Zealand citizen pilot as hostage and we are waiting for accountability from the Australian Government, the New Zealand Government, the European Union Governments, and the United Nations, because for 60 years these countries have supported Indonesia to kill Indigenous Papuans.”

Sambom cited weapons and training given to Indonesian military and police as examples of Western support. Legions of Indonesian police operating in conflict-riven Papua have been trained through the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC), which is jointly funded and run by Australia, while a number of Western governments and arms manufacturers have provided support to the nation’s military.

Sambom also said that all five passengers on the plane, including a young child, were released because they are indigenous Papuans.

The Papua region, which comprises both Papua and West Papua and was controversially incorporated into Indonesia control in a UN-sponsored vote in 1969, has been wracked by independence battles for decades, resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000 Papuans by most estimates.

Much of that conflict has involved the Free Papua Movement and TPNPB, its military wing, which has carried out a guerrilla campaign against Indonesia’s military and police, also targeting civilians. Papuan separatists regard the Indonesian government as colonisers, and point to Jakarta’s infrastructure projects and transmigration programmes as attempts to transform the ethnic composition of the region—a campaign labelled a “slow-motion genocide” by critics.  

Tensions have escalated over the past few years, with dozens of casualties among rebels, Indonesian security forces, and civilians. Last March, TPNPB killed eight civilian workers who were repairing a telecommunications tower in Puncak district. In 2018, the same group killed 31 construction workers in the largest attack by separatists in the region since the emergence of the conflict. 

In early 2021, Indonesian authorities officially branded the Free Papua Movement a terrorist organisation, a move Amnesty International, among other critics, warned could aggravate violence further.

A police spokesperson in Papua province, Ignatius Benny Adi Prabowo, said authorities were investigating Tuesday’s attack, with police and military personnel sent to the Nduga area to search for Merthens and the five passengers, according to Reuters.

“We cannot send many personnel there because Nduga is a difficult area to reach,” he said. “We can only go there by plane.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the New Zealand embassy in Indonesia was also looking at the incident.

“New Zealand diplomatic officials are aware of it,” Hipkins told Radio New Zealand. “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.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

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