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Papuan rebels have released Telecom workers taken hostage: Police

The Star - May 15, 2023

Jakarta – A group of telecommunications workers taken hostage by an armed rebel group in the Papuan Highlands has been released, the local police have said, in the latest kidnapping crisis in the restive region.

Reports emerged on Friday (May 12) that four workers from PT Infrastruktur Bisnis Sejahtera (IBS) who had flown to the province's Okbab district to inspect the construction of a base transceiver station (BTS), were taken hostage by armed men thought to be members of a Papuan rebel group.

Five armed men reportedly approached the group immediately after they landed in Okbab. A physical altercation ensued in which some members suffered injuries. The armed group reportedly demanded Rp 500 million (US$33,600) in ransom for the workers' release.

Papua Police chief Insp. Gen. Mathius D. Fakhiri claimed on Saturday that authorities had managed to resolve the issue by Saturday night and that only two workers were ultimately taken hostage, both of whom had been released.

"There were a total of four people [in the group], three were [workers from PT IBS] who were harmed [by the rebel group], while the other was a local who was allowed to escape unscathed. One [worker] who was harmed managed to flee, while the remaining two were taken hostage," he said, as quoted by Kompas.com.

"Thanks to the efforts of local leaders and religious figures, the two hostages were [freed] and have been taken to the local community health center [Puskesmas] to receive treatment. That was the report we received from the Pegunungan Bintang deputy regent and its police chief," he said.

Matthias added that the authorities did not know who the kidnappers were and that residents of the district claimed not to recognize them. "[We] strongly suspect that armed rebel groups [were responsible], but we still need more evidence," he added.

Resource-rich Papua has been plagued by severe underdevelopment and exploitation, which has galvanised a separatist movement that has simmered in the background for decades.

In February, the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB) – an armed separatist group linked to the Free Papua Movement (OPM) – captured New Zealand pilot Philip Merhtens following a routine flight to the Papua Highlands province's Nduga regency on Feb 7.

The incident caught international attention and has exacerbated tensions in the area amid skirmishes between security forces trying to free Mehrtens and separatists. It remains unclear if Saturday's incident was the work of the TPNPB.

Last month, Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Adm. Yudo Margono raised the status of the rescue operation to "ground combat ready" after one soldier was reportedly killed in combat.

The TPNPB claimed a far higher casualty count, suggesting that at least a dozen were killed, though Yudo dismissed the claims.

The combat alert status puts the troops in Papua on par with military personnel stationed in the North Natuna Sea, where various illegal fishing vessels operate and skirmishes with Chinese coast guard ships periodically occur.

Even so, the TNI chief said the military was continuing to allow local religious and tribal leaders to negotiate with the hostage takers.

Source: https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2023/05/15/papuan-rebels-have-released-telecom-workers-taken-hostage-polic