Separatist rebels set fire to a small plane carrying six people after it landed at a remote airport in Indonesia’s restive Papua province and took its pilot, a New Zealand citizen, hostage early Tuesday, police and rebels said.
Rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization, 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, Philip Mark Mehrtens, 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 recognizes and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said Wednesday that New Zealand’s embassy in Jakarta was leading his nation’s response to the case, but he couldn’t say much more.
“Consular support is being provided to the family,” Hipkins said. “You’ll be familiar with the fact that in these kinds of cases, we keep our public comments to a bare minimum.”
Hipkins was referring to a policy of avoiding any discussion that could further endanger hostages or detainees during diplomatic efforts to secure their release.
Sambom said the pilot is alive but did not provide his location. He said the pilot is being held because New Zealand, along with Australia and the United States, cooperate militarily with Indonesia.