Researchers held hostage in PNG released

Professor Bryce Barker

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has said all hostages taken by a Papua New Guinean criminal gang have been released, including an Australian academic, and will be reunited with their families.

“Thank you to PNG’s Government for its leadership in securing a safe & peaceful resolution,” Wong tweeted on Sunday afternoon.

PNG’s prime minister, James Marape, apologised to the families of those held captive and said his government had not paid a ransom to secure their release.

“To criminals, there is no profit in crime,” he said in a Facebook post. “We thank God that life was protected.”

The University of Southern Queensland confirmed its archaeology academic, Prof Bryce Barker, was among the group taken hostage in PNG’s remote highlands. The professor and three local researchers were taken captive by an armed gang which demanded a ransom for their release, according to the commissioner of police, David Manning.

He described the gunmen as “opportunists” and the situation as “delicate”.

One of the researchers was released during the week but the three other members of the group remained held as hostages. It is believed Barker, who has New Zealand citizenship but is an Australian resident, was conducting studies near Mount Bosavi with University of Papua New Guinea graduates and guides when they were confronted by the armed kidnappers last Sunday.

Wong said on Sunday that the remaining hostages had been set free. “I welcome news from PNG that all hostages have been released & will soon be reunited with their families,” she tweeted. “Also thanks to the Australian & NZ officials who helped support this outcome.”

Marape thanked police, soldiers and provincial leaders after the captives’ release.

“And we apologise to the families of those taken as hostages for ransom, it took us a while but the last three has been successfully returned through covert operations with no K3.5m (US$994) paid,” he said.

“I thank Deputy PM John Rosso and Internal Security Minister  P Tsiamalili Jr for being on top of this one.”

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs has been contacted for comment.

The USQ vice-chancellor, Prof Geraldine Mackenzie, said the university was relieved to hear of the release of their “much-loved colleague”.

“Prof Barker and his research team were in Papua New Guinea undertaking archaeological research,” Mackenzie said. “: Bryce is a highly regarded archaeologist and a valued colleague at the University of Southern Queensland and in the wider archaeological community. He has many years experience in undertaking research in PNG.

“Our deepest thanks go to the governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand, and the many people who worked tirelessly during this extremely difficult and sensitive time to secure their release.”

She asked for privacy for Barker and his team members. She also asked that the privacy of his family and colleagues be respected.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the released hostages were “now in a safe location”.

“We are extremely pleased that the hostage situation is resolved, and we are relieved for the hostages and their whānau,” the spokesperson said. “We thank the Government of Papua New Guinea for its leadership in securing the hostages’ release. In the spirit of cooperation among Pacific whānau, we have worked closely with the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia on this issue.”