JAYAPURA, Indonesia -- 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.
“New Zealand, Australia and America must be held accountable for what they have done, helping the Indonesian military to kill and genocide indigenous Papuans in the past 60 years,” Sambom said.
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 U.N.-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.
Ahead of Tuesday’s attack, police received information from the local administration in Nduga on Saturday that 15 construction workers who were building a health center in Paro village had been captured by rebels and allegedly taken hostage along with the pilot, said Papua police chief Mathius D. Fakhiri.
“We are trying to coordinate with the involvement of community leaders. Hopefully we can negotiate to release those who are being held hostage,” Fakhiri said, adding that authorities “are now trying to communicate” with the rebels.
Amnesty International condemned the attacks on civilians and public facilities in Papua and urged the rebels to release the pilot and other hostages.
“The plane arson attack and taking hostages are once again evidence of the repetition of violence in the Papua region and civilians are again the victims,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia. “We call for a review of the security approach that has been chosen by the state so far.”
Papua police spokesperson Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo said soldiers and police were searching for the pilot and passengers.
The plane, operated by Indonesian aviation company Susi Air, was carrying about 450 kilograms (990 pounds) of supplies from an airport in Timika, a mining town in neighboring Mimika district.
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.
This version corrects the New Zealand pilot's name to Philip Mark Mehrtens.