Indonesian police and military have launched a joint mission to rescue a New Zealand pilot who was seized by rebels as a hostage in Indonesia’s Papua region on Tuesday, media reports say.
The Jakarta Post reports that authorities have set up a joint search and rescue operation to try and locate Susi Air pilot Philip Merthens, who was seized after landing a small plane on a remote airstrip in the Papuan highlands.
The rebels have threatened to execute him if their demands are not met.
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Reuters reports that the West Papua National Liberation Army had claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the pilot would not be released until the Indonesian government acknowledged the independence of the Melanesian region of West Papua.
Merthens also had five passengers on board and it was unclear what had happened to them.
The Jakarta Post reports that the operation, codenamed Peaceful Carstensz, was launched by Indonesia police and the Indonesian military (TNI). The name Carstensz alludes to the mountainous region where the incident occurred.
Merthens’ location was still unclear due to conflicting information issued on Wednesday, the report said.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also earlier said it was providing consular support to the Merthens’ family and said it would not comment further because of privacy reasons, The New Zealand Herald reports.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told RNZ he had been given preliminary details and said the New Zealand embassy in Indonesia was working to help free Merthens, according to The Herald.
A researcher at Human Rights Watch in Jakarta has called for the immediate release of the hostages, including Merthens.
Researcher Andreas Harsono knew the main spokesperson of the rebel group, Sebby Sambom, after decades of research in the field.
He made a call to him personally to let the hostages go.
A former New Zealand pilot, who flew for Susi Air for just over a year ending in 2017, said pilots were warned by the airline to take precautions in the region — things such as keeping a low profile, travelling in groups, finding a driver to take them around, and not leaving compounds at night.