Indonesia Steps Up Search for Kidnapped New Zealand Pilot

 - February 8, 2023, 9:44 AM

The Indonesian Transport Ministry temporarily closed the Paro sub-district airfield in remote and militarized Nduga District in highland Papua on Wednesday following the hostage-taking of New Zealand pilot Capt. Philip Mark Merthens by Papuan rebels on February 7.

Merthens was operating a Susi Air Pilatus PC-6 Porter commercial charter flight, registration PK-BVY, with five passengers when he was overcome by separatist fighters in Paro shortly after landing. The West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB) has taken responsibility for the kidnapping and torching of the aircraft and has threatened to kill Merthens unless Indonesia recognizes West Papua as an independent state.

“We will take the New Zealand citizen pilot as hostage and we are waiting for accountability from the Australian government, the New Zealand government, the European Union governments, and the United Nations because for 60 years these countries have supported Indonesia to kill indigenous Papuans,” said TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom in a Tuesday Facebook post. At the time, Sambom confirmed Merthens was still alive.

Merthens had departed from Mozes Kilangin Airport in the Timika sub-district, Central Papua, at 5:33 a.m. local time and was scheduled to return at 7:40 a.m. Controllers lost contact at 6:35 a.m.; at 9:12 a.m., Susi Air detected the single-engine airplane’s emergency locator transmitter (ELT) and sent a search aircraft, which resulted in confirmation that the Pilatus had been set on fire on Paro’s airstrip.

Indonesia’s Papua region has been the epicenter of an insurgency against the Indonesian government since the 1960s. Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs officially categorized the TPNPB and other armed separatist groups operating in West Papua as terrorist organizations in 2021. The kidnapping of Methens is the TPNPB’s second hostage taking, following a 1996 incident involving 26 people on a wildlife research mission in neighboring Mapenduma.

Indonesian media on Wednesday said officials had detected Merthens’s whereabouts and were focused on rescuing him. They added that the kidnappers did not take the airplane’s passengers—two men, two women, and a baby—but noted that authorities rescued 15 construction workers on Wednesday via helicopter after the militants threatened to abduct them as well. Indonesia will continue the search while coordinating with New Zealand authorities.

Established in 2004, Susi Air operates into and out of 20 bases spread across the Indonesian archipelago and operates 49 aircraft, including 32 Cessna C208B Grand Caravans, three Piaggio P.180 Avanti turboprops, one Air Tractor AT802, one Piper PA-28 Cherokee, and one Let L-410. The loss of its PC-6 on Tuesday reduces its Pilatus fleet to eight. Susi Air also operates two helicopters, a Leonardo A109S Grand and an A119 Koala.