A New Zealand pilot has been taken hostage while flying in the Papua province of Indonesia.
Phillip Mark Mehrtens, was abducted by separatist fighters when they stormed his small commercial plane and set it alight after it landed in a remote airport in Paro, in the mountainous district of Nduga, on Tuesday.
Diplomatic efforts are now under way to help Mehrtens, who is originally from Christchurch, and Papuan police said soldiers and officers were searching for him.
Mehrtens was flying for Indonesian aviation company, Susi Air, when he was taken hostage, a company he first worked with after finishing flight school, a fellow pilot and former colleague told Stuff.
The separatists say they will not release Mehrtens “unless Indonesia recognises and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism”.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he was aware of the situation and that officials at the New Zealand embassy in Indonesia were working on the case.
“They haven’t yet fully briefed me on what they know and what they are doing, but I’m aware that they are working on the case,” he told RNZ’s Morning Report.
“The New Zealand Embassy is providing consular support to the family. For privacy reasons, we will not be commenting further on the case,” a foreign ministry spokesperson says.
Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the separatists, said independence fighters from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization, attacked and set fire to the small aircraft as part of their struggle for independence. He demanded that all flights to Nduga be halted.
“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 recognises and frees Papua from Indonesian colonialism.”
Sambom said Mehrtens was alive, but did not reveal his location. Five passengers who were on board, including a young child, were released because they were indigenous Papuans.
The pilot was being held because New Zealand, along with Australia and the United States, cooperate militarily with Indonesia, Sambom said.
“New Zealand, Australia and America must be held accountable for what they have done, helping the Indonesian military to kill and wage genocide against indigenous Papuans in the past 60 years,” Sambom said.
The plane was carrying about 450kg of supplies from an airport in Timika, a mining town in neighbouring Mimika district.
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.
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 responsibility for the killing, accusing the victims of being spies for the Indonesian 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 and jungle-clad easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua.