Australian academic taken hostage at gunpoint in PNG

"I want to inform the families of those taken hostage we've been at work," PNG's James Marape says.

"I want to inform the families of those taken hostage we've been at work," PNG's James Marape says. Photo: AAP

An Australian archaeologist has been taken hostage in a remote area of Papua New Guinea, with the armed gunmen demanding a ransom.

The man was reportedly held at gunpoint by 20 armed men, according to a PNG police incident report.

Three university students and four guides were also reportedly been taken hostage.

The gunmen have demanded $3.5 million kina ($1.4 million) to be paid within 24 hours by the PNG and Australian governments.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape confirmed the reports, saying contact had been made.

“I want to inform the families of those taken hostage we’ve been at work,” he said in Port Moresby on Monday.

“Contact has been made with people in the bush through secondary sources.

“They have indicated ransom. We do not encourage ransom, but we’re treating this very diligently and carefully because life is at risk and life is at stake.”

The professor’s university declined to comment.

The police report says lethal force is to be used against armed criminals as a last option.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, the national police force, have been contacted for comment.

Efforts to free Kiwi pilot continue

The PNG ransom demands came as an Indonesian military commander confirmed a “law enforcement operation” was being prepared to free a New Zealand pilot held hostage by separatists in restive Papua, but only as a last resort if negotiations failed.

Indonesia was taking soft approaches to try to break the deadlock, regional commander Muhammad Saleh Mustafa said last week.

Local politicians and religious figures are also involved in trying to secure the release of Philip Mehrtens.

Mr Mehrtens, a Susi Air pilot, was abducted by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) nearly a fortnight ago after landing in the remote region of Nduga.

“Indonesian police and military do have a standard operating procedure in enforcing the law. To prevent this problem being prolonged we must set a deadline,” Mr Muhammad told a news conference, without elaborating.

A spokesperson for the TPNPB shared photographs and videos of Mr Mehrtens last week, surrounded by about a dozen fighters, some armed with guns and bows. In the footage, Mr Mehrtens was heard saying his captors asked for the Indonesian military’s withdrawal from Papua, otherwise he would be held for life.

Separatists have waged a low-level fight for independence since the resource-rich region, once governed by the Netherlands, was brought under Indonesian control following a controversial United Nations backed referendum in 1969.

Hostage-taking has been rare and the conflict has escalated since 2018, with rebels mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks.

-with AAP

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