Kidnappers Want $1 Million for These Researchers. Police are Considering ‘Lethal Force.’

A university professor and three students were on a field trip when bandits abducted them at gunpoint in Papua New Guinea's highlands.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
papua new guinea police
PNG’s police commissioner warned that “failure to comply and resisting arrest could cost these criminals their lives.” Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty.

Papua New Guinean police have set out on a mission to find and rescue a team of university researchers who were taken hostage by armed criminals in the nation’s remote highlands on Sunday. And they say they’re willing to use lethal force if necessary.

An Australian university professor and three Papua New Guinean students were on a field trip near Mount Bosavi, about 600 kilometres northwest of the capital of Port Moresby, when the attackers, coming from the neighbouring province of Hela, spotted the group and abducted them at gunpoint, according to police. The kidnappers subsequently demanded that a cash ransom of 3.5 million kina ($993,000 USD) be paid to them within 24 hours in exchange for the hostages’ release.


Speaking to reporters in Port Moresby on Monday, PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape said there were “running conversations” between authorities and the kidnappers.

“I just want to inform the families of those taken hostage that we have been at work, that contact [has been] made with people in the bush through secondary sources,” he said, explaining that missionaries who had been living in the area were acting as intermediaries. “We've got police and military on stand-by to assist. But, in the first instance, we want those criminals to release those who are held in captivity.”

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

Hours later, PNG police commissioner David Manning confirmed that a police rescue operation was underway. He also stated that those involved in the rescue mission would be willing to use lethal force, and that “failure to comply and resisting arrest could cost these criminals their lives.”

“Our specialised security force personnel will use whatever means necessary against the criminals, up to and including the use of lethal force, in order to provide for the safety and security of the people being held,” Manning said in the statement. Authorities were offering the kidnappers “a way out,” he added, saying they would “be treated fairly through the criminal justice system” if they released the hostages.


“These are opportunists that have obviously not thought this situation through before they acted.”

Sinclair Dinnen, a researcher and associate professor at the Australian National University’s Department of Affairs, agreed with Manning’s characterisation, and noted that holding foreigners ransom in PNG is “extremely unusual.”

“There have not been many incidents at all of that,” he told VICE World News. “Which leads me to think that probably what we’re dealing with here is an opportunistic crime, and that the individuals involved have just sort of found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“It doesn’t sound to me like it’s something that was carefully planned out.”

Dinnen pointed out that poverty is rife in PNG, particularly in the remote highlands, and that something as simple as financial motivations may have been the reason for the abduction, hence the demand for a ransom.

He also speculated that the hostages’ greatest danger could in fact come from PNG police’s hard-fisted response to the situation—“meeting violence with further violence”—which could easily escalate things on the ground. 

“The police [in PNG] do have a tendency to deploy that sort of violence in situations where they perceive themselves to be dealing with violent criminals,” Dinnen said. “In a hostage situation, that clearly puts those who are being held hostage in considerable jeopardy.”

It’s still unclear whether any kind of force, lethal or otherwise, will be necessary in securing the hostages’ release. However, Prime Minister Marape’s comments indicate that authorities are in negotiations with the kidnappers, and that the possibility of a more diplomatic resolution is on the table.

Discussions appear, at least for now, to be ongoing. And this, combined with the global spotlight that’s being shone on the hostage situation, gives Dinnen “a great deal of optimism” that it can be negotiated successfully.

“I’m sure that the authorities in PNG, who are aware that there is a great deal of international interest in what’s going on because it involves the citizens of another country, will be very sensitive to that kind of external gaze,” he said.

“They will really be trying to resolve this issue without any harm happening, certainly to the hostages.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.