Tue, 19 Dec 2000

Pelita airplane shot at in Lhokseumawe

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): A Pelita Air Service plane carrying 17 passengers was shot at by unidentified gunmen on Monday as it prepared to land at Malikus Saleh Airport, some 45 kilometers west of Lhokseumawe.

The pilot aborted the landing and flew instead to Polonia Airport in Medan, North Sumatra, for safety.

Many speculated that the shooting was linked to President Abdurrahman Wahid's visit to Aceh on Tuesday, despite warnings from various parties.

North Aceh Police chief Sr. Supt. Wanto Sumardi identified the gunmen as members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), stressing that Lilawangsa Military Commander Col. Moh. Jahja and North Aceh Military District Commander Lt. Col. Suyatmo witnessed the shooting.

Jahja and Suyatmo refused to comment on the incident. Suyatmo said they were escorting a guest when the shooting took place.

Separately, North Aceh GAM deputy commander Abu Sofyan Daud said military officers had shot at the plane.

He said some 100 officers posted at the airport were "instructed" to create chaos so that a state of civil emergency could be imposed in Aceh.

Another speculation was made by Special Police Operation Cinta Meunasah spokesman Sr. Supt. Kusbini Imbar, who said the shooting was committed by frustrated Army members, who had ended their duty in the troubled province. "They were waiting for an airplane to pick them up. They were so excited at seeing the airplane descending that morning. They fired random shots in joy, and hit the plane."

The officer did not say if any of the soldiers were arrested.

Reports from Polonia Airport said there were seven bullet holes in the body and one on its wings.

Pelita spokesperson Julia Tumengkol, confirmed the incident, saying no fatalities were reported.

She said the motive for the shooting was not yet known.

President of Pelita Air Service Soeratman said in Jakarta that service to Lhokseumawe was temporarily halted due to the incident.

"We will resume operation once the plane is fixed and the situation is relatively safe. We will do our best to continue service and so far there is Indonesian Air Transport (IAT), which can transport workers," Soeratman told The Jakarta Post by phone.

The PK-PSX DAS-7 plane had left Lhoksukon Air Base shortly before the shootings took place at about 7:50 a.m, he said.

Reports said the 48-seat plane left Medan at 6:38 a.m. carrying a total of 47 passengers. Twenty-six passengers disembarked the aircraft in Lhoksukon.

"Our estimated loss is about US$4,000 a day, since we received about that much revenue from the daily flights," Soeratman said.

Pelita Air Service is one of the airlines serving the Medan - Lhoksukon - Lhokseumawe route for hundreds of employees from leading oil corporation Exxon-Mobil and gas company PT Arun.

The Malikus Saleh Airport is a special air base located at Pintoe Weu village, Muara Batu district. It is jointly managed by state oil company Pertamina and PT Arun.

The runway, measuring 1,800 meters long and 30 meters wide, is used to serve two regular flights, usually by Fokker-27 or DAS-7 airplanes, to the North Sumatra provincial capital of Medan each day.

Soeratman said the plane was shot at when it was between 150 feet and 200 feet in altitude. "Pilot Widayanto decided to head for Polonia and the plane landed there at 8:45 a.m."

"All passengers and crew members are safe. They were a bit shaken, but everything is okay. The plane is now being checked at a hangar in Medan.

"The bullets hit several spots on the plane, such as the left fuel tank, the propeller, a passenger seat and a spot near the cargo landing door. Thank God none of them harmed any of the passengers or crew," Soeratman said.

On Feb. 5, an armed gang attacked and set fire to the terminal at Malikus Saleh Airport, which serves the economically strategic Arun gas fields.

The gas fields are a major supplier of liquefied natural gas to countries like Japan and South Korea. (50/lup/edt)