Trigana Air Boeing 737 Takes Gunfire from Papuan Rebels

 - March 13, 2023, 9:06 AM
Indonesian investigators inspect a Trigana Air Boeing 737-500 for gunfire damage. (Photo: Indonesian National Police)

Indonesian carriers Wings Air and Trigana Air have suspended operations to Nop Goliat Dekai Airport in Yahukimo Regency, Highland Papua, after rebel gunfire damaged a Trigana Air Boeing 737-500 carrying 66 passengers on Saturday.

According to local media reports, the 737, bearing registration PK-YSC, was on approach to Dekai runway 07/25 when four gunshots rang out. Following a successful landing and ground inspection, the aircraft performed a return flight to Papuan capital Jayapura but encountered a second round of gunfire during takeoff at around 2:06 pm eastern Indonesia time. A post-flight inspection at Jayapura Sentani Airport revealed that a bullet had struck the lower fuselage and penetrated passenger seat 7C. Photos circulating on social media showed a hole in the lower fuselage and a crack in the seat frame.

The Indonesian National Police (Polri) confirmed the aviation occurrence on Sunday, saying one passenger had sustained minor injuries from seat splinters and that it had begun an investigation. Papua Police chief inspector General Mathius Fahiri said the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB), also known as the Kelompok Kriminal Bersenjata (KKB) carried out the attack and that police had arrested seven people. The TBNPB is an offshoot of the separatist group Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), or Free Papua Movement, which officially formed in 1965.

According to Polri, the Operation Peace Cartenz task force—a joint operation conducted by the police and the Indonesian National Armed Forces—is supporting the criminal investigation.

“The security situation in Yahukimo district is generally relatively safe,” said operations chief Faizal Ramadhani in a statement. “However, members still carry out patrols to provide a sense of security and comfort to the people in Yahukimo Regency."

The TPNPB took responsibility for the shooting via a Facebook post on Sunday, saying it carried out the attack because the airplane was operating under Indonesia’s Mobile Brigade Corps—a Polri paramilitary unit. The group had previously said it would fire at civilian aircraft carrying military and police personnel. The group denied the seven arrested were involved in the shooting.

Saturday’s incident comes a day after the TPNPB released a stitched video with written updates on its Facebook page concerning the hostage-taking of New Zealand commercial pilot Philip Mark Mehrtens. On February 7, Mehrtens was operating a Susi Air Pilatus PC-6 Porter charter flight with five locals on board when he was overcome by separatist rebels at Paro sub-district airfield in highland Papua’s remote and militarized Nduga District. The rebels released the passengers, but have held Mehrtens captive ever since.

“I have been instructed to read this statement,” Mehrtens said in a video. “No foreign pilots are permitted to work and fly in Papua until Papua is independent. The OPM requests the United Nations to mediate between Papua and Indonesia to work towards Papuan independence. The OPM will release me after Papua is independent.”

Separately, the rebels called on Australia, Britain, China, France, New Zealand, Russia, and the U.S. to cease military cooperation with Indonesia.

In an earlier Facebook post, the TPNPB said it also had shot down a small airplane last Tuesday at Bilogai-Sugapa Airport in Papua’s Intan Jaya Regency.

No public reports of a downed aircraft have emerged. According to local media, gunfire erupted around 7:55 am on March 7 while ground crew unloaded cargo from a Smart Aviation Pilatus PC-6. A PT. Dabi Air Nusantara aircraft was scheduled to land at 08:20 but it diverted back to Douw Aturure Airport in Papua’s Nabire Regency.