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Australian professor among three hostages released in Papua New Guinea

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – An Australian archaeologist and two Papua New Guinea researchers who were held for a week by 20 gunmen in a remote part of the Pacific island nation were released on Sunday while their captors remain at large, a local said official told Reuters.

Professor Bryce Barker and PhD student Teppsy Beni from the University of Southern Queensland, and researcher at the National Museum of Papua New Guinea Jemina Haro, were released after a ransom was paid, said Alphonse Seiyaka, an official with the Mount Bosavi government, where the three were being held rough terrain.

“They didn’t catch the criminals,” Seiyaka said. As soon as soldiers exchanged money for the Australian and the two Papua New Guinean women, the kidnappers “escaped into the bush,” he said.

Seiyaka declined to specify the ransom amount, but said it was less than the 3.5 million kina ($960,000) originally demanded.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong thanked the Papua New Guinea government for “ensuring a safe and peaceful solution”.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said this was the first such incident in his resource-rich but impoverished nation and “it must not be repeated”.

“The police and army have surrounded the area and will operate there until you surrender,” he warned the gunmen in a statement.

Barker’s team investigated whether Papua New Guinea provided the bridge for the first human migration to Australia tens of thousands of years ago. The remote village of Fogomaiyu in the Mount Bosavi region of Hela province is part of the collapsed cone of an extinct volcano.

The group, arrested in Fogomaiyu village on February 19, was taken 10 km (six miles) into the bush.

Vice Chancellor Geraldine Mackenzie said the University of Southern Queensland was “relieved to hear that our beloved colleague” had been released.

“Our deepest gratitude goes to the governments of Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand and the many people who have worked tirelessly to secure their release at this extremely difficult and sensitive time,” she said in a statement.

Cathy Alex, who was captured with the others and released on Wednesday, had resigned from her job as project coordinator for the PNG Women Leaders Network in Port Moresby to take part in the field trip studying the Great Papua Plateau.

Ruth Kissam, President of the Women Leaders Network, said Alex is a regular visitor to the Mount Bosavi area. ‚ÄúThis is someone the community loves. She has a tribe that adopted her. The people involved in this situation are non-local criminal elements,” she said.

Police initially said the criminals were opportunists who came from Komo in Hela, accidentally spotted the university group and took them to the bush. In his statement on Sunday, Marape referred to the men having a complaint about logging work.

($1 = 3.6430 kinas)

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Additional reporting by Sam McKeith; Editing by William Mallard and Barbara Lewis)

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