Rebels Torch Plane, Shoot Helicopter in Indonesia’s Papua Region

Ronna Nirmala and Imran Vittachi
Jakarta and Washington
2021-01-07
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Rebels Torch Plane, Shoot Helicopter in Indonesia’s Papua Region A charter helicopter belonging to the firm PT Sayap Garuda Indah is cordoned off at a helipad in Mimika, a regency in Indonesia’s Papua province, after separatist rebels reportedly shot at it in mid-flight, Jan. 6, 2020.
Courtesy Papua Provincial Police Information Bureau

Updated at 3:24 p.m. ET on 2021-01-07

Separatist rebels set fire to an airplane operated by an American-Christian humanitarian organization and shot a helicopter contracted by a U.S.-Indonesian mining company in separate attacks in Indonesia’s Papua province, security officials said Thursday.

No one was hurt in the incidents in Intan Jaya and Mimika regencies on Wednesday, officials said. The National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB) – the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) – claimed responsibility for both incidents, alleging that the aircraft had been used to transport government military and police personnel as well as supplies.

Men with weapons torched a small plane belonging to the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) – a Christian humanitarian aid group headquartered in Idaho – after it landed at Biandoga in Intan Jaya regency, provincial police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal said.

“Someone carrying a gun came to the plane, fired shots into the air and told the pilot to stand down,” Kamal said in a press release.

Local church leaders rescued the pilot – a U.S. citizen identified as Alex Luferchek – and his two passengers before the assailants torched the plane, Kamal said.

In the other incident on Wednesday, rebels opened fire at a helicopter in flight as it conducted a GPS survey for the mining firm PT Freeport Indonesia in the Benangin area of Mimika regency, said Kamal. The pilot and two passengers were all foreigners, he said.

The police spokesman said investigators found a bullet hole in the helicopter’s fuselage after it landed in Tembagapura in Mimika, near Freeport’s sprawling Grasberg gold and copper mine.

A Papua military spokesman, Col. I Gusti Nyoman Suriastawa, blamed TPNPB rebels for both attacks.

“These were civilian planes being targeted. They wanted to show that they exist,” Suriastawa told BenarNews.

MAF is an evangelical organization that uses aviation to serve isolated and disadvantaged communities in Indonesia and some other developing countries, and has been operating in Papua since 1954.

“At the time of the incident, our pilot was told by rebels that the burning of MAF’s Kodiak aircraft was to gain international recognition,” Brad Hoaglun, spokesman for the Christian outreach group, told BenarNews in an email Thursday.

“Our purpose in Papua is and remains a humanitarian mission based on God’s call to serve others. MAF is extremely disappointed by the burning of our aircraft as a political statement. The destruction of this donated aircraft only hurts our ability to serve the people in Papua.”

In May 2020, one of the group’s pilots, Joyce Lin, was killed when her Kodiak plane crashed into a Papua lake soon after she took off on a flight to deliver COVID-19 rapid test kits to a remote village in the Papuan highlands.

Hoaglun said the Indonesian government was still investigating the cause of the crash, which occurred after Lin reported an in-flight emergency.

“MAF is also undertaking an internal review into the many issues that may or may not have contributed to the accident. At this time there are no conclusions to announce,” he said.

Riza Pratama, a spokesman for Freeport Indonesia, said the helicopter in Wednesday’s incident belonged to a local firm contracted to support Freeport’s mining operations.

“The chopper does not belong to us, it belongs to Sayap Garuda Indah,” Riza said via a text message, referring to a helicopter charter company based on Bali Island.

Sayap Garuda Indah could not be immediately reached for comment.

In December 2018, the Indonesian government became a majority stakeholder in Freeport Indonesia, the firm that operates the Grasberg mine.

As part of the deal, the government awarded Mimika regency and surrounding Papua province a 10 percent stake to spur financial aid and educational opportunities in the deeply impoverished area. Freeport-McMoRan, a U.S.-based mining giant, then officially became a minority stakeholder in the mine.

Rebels claim responsibility

Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the rebels, said they carried out Wednesday’s attacks.

“The reason is clear, last year the TPNPB-OPM headquarters had announced that any civilian helicopter and commercial civilian plane that transports military and police personnel will be shot,” he told BenarNews.

“MAF aircraft regularly transport military and police personnel as well as military logistical supplies including food,” Sambom said.

He warned that attacks would continue unless Indonesian forces withdrew from the far-eastern Papua region.

In response to this allegation by the rebels, Hoaglun cited MAF policy, which states, “carrying armed military personnel, or armed or unarmed persons involved in military actions, is strictly prohibited in MAF aircraft because doing so does not represent the vision of MAF.”

“Statements made that are contrary to our policy are false,” Hoaglun said. “Our organization does work with the government to deliver items such as school supplies as well as medical equipment, vaccines, and conducting emergency medical evacuations. We also support the work of community development, along with assisting in the growth of the church in isolated areas.”

Papuan separatists also claimed responsibility for the downing of an army helicopter in which 12 service members were killed in 2018. The military said that bad weather caused the crash. 

Suriastawa, the military spokesman in Papua, urged the people of Intan Jaya and Mimika not to be provoked by the rebels’ actions.

“Stay calm and help the government develop Papua and West Papua to achieve progress and prosperity,” he said, referring to the two provinces that make up the Indonesian half of New Guinea Island.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua and annexed it. In 1969, the region held a referendum in which security forces selected slightly more than 1,000 people to agree to Papua’s formal absorption into Indonesia, according to human rights advocacy groups.

Indonesian forces, for their part, have been accused of committing human rights abuses in Papua.

According to Amnesty International’s Indonesian office, at least 22 people were victims of unlawful killings in Papua in 2020.

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