The decision to take the Australian-based New Zealand archaeologist Prof Bryce Barker and his research team hostage near remote Mount Bosavi in Papua New Guinea was a “spur of the moment” decision by their captors, two of whom had been shot in an earlier encounter with security guards at a logging site.
The governor of Hela province, Philip Undialu, said his team had only been able to begin negotiations with the captors – a criminal gang of about 20 “runners” moving guns and drugs across New Guinea – once they had moved the hostages into an area with mobile phone coverage.
“This was an unplanned incident,” he said. “When the group was chased out of Kumasi, two of their men were badly injured. They ran into the professor and his group and, on the spur of the moment, decided to hold them hostage to get the attention of the authorities so that they could demand compensation for two of their men that were injured.”
Barker’s group were doing fieldwork – researching the history of human migration to Australia – in the highlands on the border of Hela and Southern Highlands provinces.
In the days before the kidnapping, the captors encountered a security team at a logging site in Kumasi. After expatriate staff from the logging grounds were kidnapped last year, security at the site had been strengthened and the gunmen were confronted when they approached the area. Two of the group were shot and badly injured.
Escaping, the captors encountered the professor, researchers and guides early on the morning of 19 February, and took them hostage, demanding a ransom of 3.5m kina – (A$1.5m) as compensation for the injuries they had sustained – in exchange for the hostage’s release.
Four of the guides taken hostage were released on 20 February, while Cathy Alex, a representative of the Women Leaders Network who was with the research group, was set free on the afternoon of 22 February.
Alex, who arrived in Fogama’iu village near Mount Bosavi weakened from lack of food and water, and after hours of walking through rugged, mountainous terrain, was released to relay the message that the captors were insisting the ransom be paid.
Barker, a New Zealand citizen based at the University of Southern Queensland, had initially relayed the captors’ demands on his satellite phone, including their ransom demand, and the captors’ insistence they would hold the researchers hostage until the money was paid.
Told that a sum so large could not be readily accessed in the province – it would need to be helicoptered in from Port Moresby – the captors were urged to accept a smaller sum that could be obtained locally. But negotiations stalled when the satellite phone battery failed.
“Due to the issue of not having phone network coverage in the area, it was hard to communicate, the professor had a satellite phone but the battery was flat, so all communications were through third parties,” Undialu said.
Exacerbating the communication difficulties, the captors kept moving their hostages to evade interception by authorities.
“We finally managed to make contact [Saturday] and [Sunday], the negotiation team … safely brought them out from Bosavi to Kutubu.”
A joint security taskforce of PNG defence force, police and St John’s ambulance personnel was sent into the area early last week but they could not gain access to the group as the kidnappers threatened to kill the hostages if they were approached by anyone in uniform.
The Hela provincial government also tried to charter a helicopter to enter the area but could not find a pilot willing to fly in as the region had been “red-flagged” as too dangerous.
Undialu sent a plainclothes negotiation team in to the remote area, with a small sum of money – significantly smaller than the captors’ demand – which the gunmen accepted. Barker and the remaining hostages were released and walked out of the forest.
“The group released the three of them [Sunday] afternoon at 2pm, they were flown out in a chopper from the Bosavi area to Kutubu where they were flown back to Port Moresby in a small plane,” Undialu said.
He said the potential prosecution of the captors was a matter for the national government and police.
“On behalf of the people of Hela I would like to extend our sincere apologies to the country and the people of Australia for this unfortunate incident,” he said.
“I thank the security forces, both police and defence and especially the community leaders and communities around the Bosavi area, especially my people in Komo who provided much-needed intel that helped to make this rescue possible.”
PNG’s prime minister, James Marape, stressed there was “no 3.5m kina paid” and warned “to criminals, there is no profit in crime”. He apologised to those taken captive and to their families.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: “We are extremely pleased that the hostage situation is resolved and we are relieved for the hostages and their whānau.” Whānau is a te reo Māori word meaning extended family or clanship group.
“We thank the government of Papua New Guinea for its leadership in securing the hostages’ release. In the spirit of cooperation among Pacific whānau, we have worked closely with the governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia on this issue.”