Indonesian security forces search for NZ pilot taken hostage

Police guarding a hospital where workers threatened by Papuan rebels were brought for medical examinations in Mimika, Papua province, Indonesia. - AP

JAYAPURA (AP): Indonesian security forces searched on Wednesday for a pilot from New Zealand who was taken hostage by separatist rebels in restive Papua province.

The joint team of soldiers and police searching for the pilot, Philip Mark Mehrtens, also managed on Wednesday to rescue 15 construction workers who had been building a health center in Paro village in remote Nduga district after separatist rebels threatened to kill them, regional military commander Brig. Gen. J.O. Sembiring said.

Mehrtens, from Christchurch, was captured early Tuesday by independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Organization, who stormed his single-engine plane shortly after it landed at Paro's small airport.

The plane, operated by Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was carrying five passengers and about 450kg of supplies from Timika, a mining town in neighbouring Mimika district.

The rebels released the indigenous Papuan passengers and set fire to the plane, rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom said.

"We will never release the pilot we are holding hostage unless Indonesia recognises our sovereignty and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism,” Sambom said in a statement Tuesday.

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.

National Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo said soldiers and police were deployed to locate and rescue the pilot.

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said Wednesday that his country's embassy in Jakarta was leading its response to the hostage taking.

"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.

The 15 construction workers rescued by the security forces on Wednesday came from other Indonesian islands to build the health center in Paro. They had taken refuge in a priest’s house in the village since Saturday after a group of armed rebels threatened to kill them, regional military commander Brig. Gen. Juinta Omboh Sembiring said.

Sembiring said the workers were taken by helicopter to a hospital for a health examination.

Separatists consider civilian workers to be outsiders and sometimes spies for the Indonesian government.

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 rebel responsibility for the killing, accusing the victims of being spies for the 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 easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua.

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