NZ embassy investigating Susi Air pilot held hostage in New Guinea

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has assured embassy officials are “on the case” after a pilot was taken hostage by a rebel group in Indonesia.

But he is not the only missing person, as new information has emerged that 15 workers are also suspected of being held hostage in the area, local media reported, citing police.

The origins and type of work of the 15 hostages has not yet been disclosed.

The pilot, reported by New Zealand media as Captain Philip Mark Mehrtens, was taken hostage after landing on Tuesday at a remote airport in Nduga in Indonesia’s West Papua province, on the island of New Guinea.

Captain Mehrtens was flying for Indonesian airline Susi Air and had five passengers on board, including a baby, who are believed to have been freed but it is unconfirmed.

The West Papuan National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened to kill the pilot if the government in Jakarta did not recognise the independence of West Papua – which refers to the western side of the island of New Guinea.

“We want to convey that we have taken this pilot hostage and brought it to the TPNPB headquarters which is far from the airfield area,” a spokesman for the group, Sebby Sambom, told The Australian in a statement.

“This pilot is a citizen of New Zealand. TPNPB considers New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, America, Europe, all are responsible.

“The US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand has supported the Indonesian government, trained the Indonesian National Police, supplied weapons to kill us West Papuans from 1963 to today. They must be held accountable.”

Indonesian media company Detikcom reported Papua Police Chief Inspector General Mathius Fakhiri said 15 workers were also suspected of being held hostage in Nduga, and work was underway to evacuate them and the pilot.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told public broadcaster RNZ on Wednesday morning: “I’m aware of the case. I don’t have full details of it … I’m aware that the New Zealand embassy is working on the case.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing consular support to the pilot’s family and said it wouldn’t comment further because of privacy reasons, NZ Herald reported.

Jeremy Rumi, district manager for Susi Air, told The Australian the plane took off from Mozes Kilangin Airport in Mimika, in Central Papua, for Paro Airport in Nduga before dawn on Tuesday but lost contact after it landed at 6.17am (10.17am AEDT).

Susi Air founder and former Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti asked for prayers and support, writing on Twitter that she hoped they would be able to pick their pilot up safely.

Images from the airstrip where the plane landed appeared to show smoke rising from the wreckage and it is being investigated whether it was set on fire.

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