PORT MORSEBY - Three hostages, including a New Zealand archaeologist, were freed in Papua New Guinea on Sunday after a tense week of negotiations between police and armed kidnappers in the country’s rugged highlands.
Professor Bryce Barker and his two Papua New Guinean colleagues were seen walking across the tarmac alongside police at Port Moresby’s airport after officials announced their safe release.
“It has been a stressful week for all involved, and to finally have the hostages back safely in the custody of our security personnel is very important for us as a country,” said Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape.
Prof Barker, who is from Australia’s University of Southern Queensland, and the two women were taken hostage at gunpoint on Feb 18 in a remote and densely forested region near Mount Bosavi, about 570km north-west of Port Moresby.
Mr Marape said all three appeared unharmed, although they were “obviously traumatised” after the “random opportunist crime”.
Earlier last week, the captors released another woman who was also part of the group of academics working in the area when they were kidnapped.
Police had been negotiating with the hostage takers, who initially demanded a ransom of US$1 million (S$1.35 million) – an enormous sum in one of the Pacific’s poorest nations – before dropping the asking price and abandoning a 24-hour deadline.
Australia’s and New Zealand’s foreign ministers welcomed the news and thanked Papua New Guinea authorities for their work.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said: “I welcome news from PNG that all hostages have been released and will soon be reunited with their families.”
Mr Marape said the hostages were freed after “covert operations” and the original ransom demand had not been paid – but did not provide further details.
“We apologise to the families of those taken as hostages for ransom,” Mr Marape said. “To criminals, there is no profit in crime. We thank God that life was protected.”
Police were now searching for the armed group, he added.
Prof Barker’s Australian colleagues were “relieved” by the release of the “much-loved” and “highly regarded” professor, said University of Southern Queensland vice-chancellor Geraldine Mackenzie.
The archaeologist had many years of experience working in the Pacific nation and was on a research trip when he was seized, Professor Mackenzie said.
Papua New Guinea’s highlands are a sprawling expanse of jungle-cloaked hills where the central government and security forces have little sway.
In recent years, the regions have seen an increase in tribal warfare and modern weapons. AFP