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New Zealand pilot taken hostage in Indonesia

Susi Air founder, Susi Pudjiastuti, said on Twitter she was praying for the safety of the pilot and the passengers. (Photo: AFP)

Dr Malini Yugendran

8 February 2023

Indonesia’s Papua region has seen a dramatic turn of events as a New Zealand pilot was taken hostage by rebel fighters and held captive after a small commercial plane was set on fire. Al Jazeera cited AFP stating that the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claimed responsibility for the attack and stated that the pilot will not be released until the Indonesian government recognizes the independence of West Papua. The five people on board, including a child, have reportedly been released, according to the TPNP.

Police and military have been deployed to the area to locate the pilot and the passengers, but the remote location can only be reached by plane. The pilot has been identified as Captain Philip Merthens and the plane was operated by Susi Air.

BBC reported that the group’s spokesperson, Sebby Sambom, has stated that the pilot will be executed if Indonesia fails to negotiate.

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson told Indian Newslink, “We are aware of the situation involving a New Zealand pilot in Papua. For privacy reasons, we will not be commenting further on the case. The New Zealand Embassy is providing consular support to the family.”

The conflict in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces has escalated in recent years, with pro-independence fighters carrying out deadlier and more frequent attacks, according to a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. The increased intensity of these attacks is due to the improved ability of the fighters to obtain weapons, including raids on Indonesian army posts, cross-border purchases, and illegal sales of government-issued weapons.

According to the BBC, the separatist fighters, who have been designated as a terrorist group by Indonesia, are demanding the government recognize the independence of the West Papua province.

The Papua region, which was a former Dutch colony, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 following a disputed UN-supervised ballot and has since seen frequent conflict between separatists and the Indonesian military. The current situation serves as a reminder of the ongoing tensions in the region and the dangerous conditions faced by those operating in the area.

Dr Malini Yugendran is an Indian Newslink Reporter based in Auckland.

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