Separatist fighters in Indonesia’s Papua region took a New Zealand pilot hostage after setting fire to a small commercial plane as it landed in a remote mountainous area on Tuesday, a pro-independence group said in a statement.

A police spokesman in Papua province, Ignatius Benny Adi Prabowo, said authorities were investigating the incident and military and police personnel had been dispatched to the area to locate the pilot and five passengers.

“We can’t send a lot of staff there because Nduga is a hard-to-reach area. We can only go there by plane,” she said.

A military spokesman in Papua, Herman Taryaman, said the pilot had been identified as Captain Philip Merthens and it was unclear if the five passengers with him had also been hijacked.

The plane operated by Susi Air landed safely early Tuesday before coming under attack by rebel fighters, authorities said.

The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement seen by Reuters, saying the pilot would not be released until the Indonesian government recognized the independence of West Papua, which refers to the western side. from the island of New Guinea.

The TPNPB did not name the passengers, but said this was the second time the group had taken a hostage. The first incident was in 1996.

The New Zealand embassy in Jakarta and the Indonesian foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Indonesia’s easternmost provinces have been rocked by a low-level battle for independence since the resource-rich region controversially came under Indonesian control in a United Nations-supervised vote in 1969.

The conflict has escalated significantly since 2018, with pro-independence fighters mounting more deadly and frequent attacks.

The increased intensity of these attacks has been made possible by a better ability to obtain more weapons, including by raiding and robbing army posts, cross-border purchases and the illegal sale of government-issued weapons, the Institute for Policy Analysis said. of Conflict in a report last year.

Susi Air founder and former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said on Twitter that she was praying for the safety of the pilot and passengers.