February 10, 2023
JAKARTA – Authorities have deployed a joint team to evacuate a foreign pilot who was allegedly taken hostage by separatist fighters in the restive Papua region on Tuesday, after their commercial plane was set on fire upon landing safely in the remote regency of Nduga.
A joint search and rescue operation, codenamed Peaceful Carstensz, was launched by the National Police and the Indonesian Military (TNI) in an effort to locate New Zealand national Philip Merthens, who was “secured” alongside five passengers after landing on an airstrip in the Papuan highlands. The name Carstensz is a nod to the mountainous region where the incident occurred.
The whereabouts of Merthens, a pilot employed by the frontier airline carrier Susi Air, were still unclear due to conflicting information issued on Wednesday.
The West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization (OPM), claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement to The Jakarta Post that Merthens would not be released until the government acknowledged the independence of West Papua.
The plane landed safely early on Tuesday morning, before rebel fighters led by group commander Egianus Kogoya stormed the plane, torched it and took hostages. The Transportation Ministry has issued a notice calling for greater security awareness among air travel and traffic service providers.
The incident has since been corroborated by the local police and the military command. TNI chief Adm. Yudo Margono said that personnel were being deployed to the last known location of the pilot.
“Our priority now is to find the pilot,” Yudo told reporters after a coordination meeting in Jakarta on Wednesday, noting that he had been led to believe Merthens escaped capture but had not been rescued.
One police spokesman was quoted as saying that it was difficult to send people into Nduga to verify.
Meanwhile, the military commander said the five Papuan passengers had been evacuated from Paro, where the incident occurred, to Timika in neighboring Central Papua where they were returned home.
Papua Police chief Insp. Gen. Mathius Fakhiri said that Merthens was being tracked down using GPS.
“The pilot brought a GPS [system] with him. At the moment, the GPS is inactive, but yesterday we saw it had moved from Paro village about 100 meters [into forest cover],” Mathius said on the margins of the coordination meeting.
He also said local authorities had managed to evacuate 15 local workers in Nduga who faced intimidation by the rebel group on Wednesday, after the joint ops team dispatched three helicopters to search the district.
Initial reports suggested that the workers were detained under suspicion of being military or intelligence officers, a claim that the Papua Police and the rebels have refuted.
Indonesia’s easternmost region, which makes up the western half of New Guinea island, has faced a small independence movement that has simmered since the resource-rich region was controversially brought under Jakarta’s control in 1969. But Indonesia has also faced criticisms for taking a tough security approach in Papua that has led to accusations of human rights violations and indiscriminate violence.
It is only the second time since 1996 that security forces have had to deal with foreign hostages. In Operation Mapenduma, the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) sought to rescue 11 foreign and Indonesian scientists abducted by the OPM. Two Indonesian hostages were killed in an operation that was at the time led by Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister.
Susi Air founder and former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti took to Twitter to say she was praying for the safety of the pilot and the passengers.
TNI commander Yudo refuted suggestions that the Kiwi pilot was still in the hands of the OPM, but rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom insisted the pilot was still being held captive and would not be released until negotiations with the government were underway and facilitated by New Zealand.
“The pilot is now on a three-day long ride to one of our base camps,” Sebby told the Post on Wednesday. The five passengers, a young child among them, were released because they were indigenous Papuans, he added.
On Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said that consular support had been provided to the pilot’s family but added that his government would be keeping public comments “to a minimum”.
He also said the New Zealand Embassy in Jakarta would lead the response.
A spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade previously said on Tuesday that it “was aware of the situation involving a New Zealand pilot in Papua” but also declined to comment further “for privacy reasons”.
From the Indonesian side, Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told the Post that it was communicating with the New Zealand government but refused to elaborate, saying only that “what is important is we are currently handling all developments”.