Prabowo’s May 1996 Hostage Rescue Mission in Irian Jaya

Posted by on Jul 2, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Prabowo’s May 1996 Hostage Rescue Mission in Irian Jaya

On January 8, 1996, a band of about 200 Free Papua Organization (OPM) rebels led by Daniel Kagoya Jude kidnapped twenty-six persons near Mapanduma, Jayawijaya District in the Baliem Valley about 180 kilometers northeast of Timika and 160 kilometers southwest of Wamena. Those abducted belonged to a scientific expedition doing research on biodiversity in the 15,000-square kilometer Lorentz Nature Reserve. They included seven foreigners employed by the World Wildlife Federation – four British, two Dutch (including a pregnant woman) and a German national – along with a Papuan mother and her six-month old baby. Kagoya was a subordinate to Kelly Kwalik, an OPM Commander who had operated in the Timika area since the 1970s. Kwalik approved the operation, later claiming he had a vision that Papua would gain independence during 1996 and the hostage incident would attract international attention to that goal.[1] The kidnappings received broad media coverage.

It was a period of increasing OPM activity. Security forces at the Freeport mine had aggressively put down local disturbances during 1994 and 1995, resulting in at least a dozen deaths. Apparently provoked by security forces in a crude attempt to extort money from the company, riots during March 1994 had shut down mining operations for three days. In November 1995, rebels abducted thirty persons, all Indonesian citizens, near the southern Papua New Guinea border; one was later killed. During December, an OPM group under Mathias Wenda kidnapped two students in Arso Subdistrict, east of Jayapura along the Papua New Guinea border, and held them for two months before they were released unharmed.[2]

Irian Jaya Trikora Regional Commander Major General Dunidja deployed soldiers from organic Trikora Battalions 751 (Sentani) and 753 (Sorong), along with troops from the Makassar-based Kostrad Battalion on duty at the Freeport mine, to pursue Kagoya and the Mapanduma hostages. A Kopassus company of about ninety men with four helicopters arrived in Timika on January 11 to assist in the manhunt. The kidnappers split into small groups to avoid their pursuers. Soldiers freed nine Papuan and Indonesian hostages near Digi village on January 12, all unharmed. A 300-soldier task force was established in the highland town of Wamena to continue the search for the remaining seventeen hostages. At Kelly Kwalik’s request, Jayapura Bishop Munninghoff and several church officials volunteered to mediate the hostages’ release. Using a persuasive approach, on January 15 the Trikora command transported the religious leaders in two helicopters with food supplies, blankets, cigarettes and medicine. Kagoya released four more captives on January 21, including the mother and her baby, and World Wildlife Fund employee Frank Momberg, a German national who later acted as an intermediary between the military and the kidnappers.

Kelly Kwalik demanded an end to government-sponsored transmigration in Irian Jaya and United Nations acknowledgement of the Papuan people’s sovereignty. Armed Forces Commander Feisal Tanjung firmly asserted, “There will be no negotiations with the GPK [Gerombolan Pengacau Keamanan, Gang of Security Disturbers].”[3] The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) joined mediation efforts in early-February. One more Papuan hostage was released on February 10 and another March 16. ICRC representatives reported four remaining captives were suffering from health problems, including the pregnant Dutch female. Kwalik and Kagoya ignored letters from Pope John Paul II (conveyed by Bishop Munninghoff), United Nations Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, the European Parliament President and the ICRC Chairman. He also disregarded requests from OPM Commander-in-exile Weror Moses and several other overseas Papuans to release the captives to preserve the independence struggle’s international image.

Minor rioting took place in Timika on March 12 after a Freeport vehicle hit a resident. On Sunday, April 14, while on patrol, two soldiers from Trikora Battalion 752 were attacked and hacked to death with machetes in Senawak village near Mapanduma. The Army blamed the OPM separatists but it appears villagers killed the men, who they accused of raping a local woman. Kopassus troops under Detachment 81 (Anti-Terrorism) Commander Lieutenant Colonel Adel Gustimigo had been deployed to Timika to track down and rescue the remaining hostages. A 1978 Military Academy graduate, Gustimigo was a rising star in the red berets, close to Kopassus Commander Brigadier General Prabowo.

At around 5:00 a.m. on Monday, April 15, tragedy struck at the Timika airport. Kopassus Second Lieutenant Sanurip opened fire with his automatic rifle inside an aircraft hangar, killing sixteen persons and injuring another eleven before a Kopassus sergeant shot the lieutenant in the leg and subdued him. Among the dead were three Kopassus officers – Lieutenant Colonel Gustimigo, a major and a captain – eight enlisted soldiers and five civilians, including New Zealand national Michael Findley, a helicopter pilot for the AirFast charter company.[4]

Lieutenant Sanurip was thirty-six years old, a former noncommissioned officer assigned to Kopassus Group 1 (Paracommando). His rampage appears to have been triggered by combat stress related to several factors. Sanurip was friends with one of the soldiers killed in Senawak village the previous day. The bodies had been flown into Timika early Monday morning and Sanurip viewed the mutilated remains before his shooting spree. According to testimony at his trial, the Kopassus lieutenant suffered from acute depression and malaria. He was unhappy because he had been forced to leave his expectant wife in East Timor to deploy to Papua. He was also said to have been angry at Lieutenant Colonel Gustimigo, who had excluded him from the planned hostage rescue operation; Sanurip reportedly felt he had been insulted.[5]

Kopassus Commander Prabowo flew to Timika to escort his men’s bodies back to Jakarta. The officers were buried in the Kalibata National Heroes Cemetery. A military tribunal sentenced Lieutenant Sanurip to death in April 1997. He was executed without public announcement following a failed appeal for clemency. It was not the end of violent incidents involving soldiers at Timika. Later during 1997, the Kostrad duty battalion commander at the Freeport mine was shot and killed by his driver. The Kostrad officer had allegedly hit the soldier several times before the incident.

After the Timika tragedy, Prabowo took control over the hostage rescue operation. When he was not on site, the senior officer present was Brigadier General Zacky Anwar Makarim, Prabowo’s long-time friend and associate then serving as BIA Director A (Domestic Intelligence). During April 1996, in the midst of the hostage crisis, a Kopassus and Indonesian civilian team became the first Southeast Asian expedition to conquer Mount Everest, another feather in Prabowo’s hat. Prabowo had two Bell 412 helicopters disassembled at the Army Aviation Center at Semarang, loaded aboard a C-130 aircraft, transported and reassembled in Wamena, the main command post for the rescue operation. Timika was used as a staging area. Since four captives were British, London dispatched several police hostage negotiators to Irian Jaya, while British military officers worked with Prabowo and Zacky to develop a rescue plan. Commercial AirFast helicopters and pilots at the Timika airport were used to shuttle negotiators, including the European ICRC representatives, back and forth to the OPM hideout in Geselama village, Tiom District, where the hostages were being held by Kelly Kwalik and Kagoya.

On May 7, Kelly Kwalik informed an ICRC representative he was willing to release the remaining hostages. At his request, on May 8 four pigs were flown by helicopter to the site, where they were slaughtered, roasted and eaten to commemorate the occasion. After the feast, Kwalik made new excuses to avoid releasing the hostages. Instead of domestic pigs, the four pigs (which had already been consumed) should have been wild black pigs, he groused. He demanded an additional gift of weapons as ransom.[6]

The ICRC representatives withdrew from the negotiations and on May 9 Brigadier General Prabowo led a rescue attempt with assault troops aboard five helicopters into Geselama village; they found the area abandoned. On the return trip to Timika, one helicopter hit a treetop and crashed, killing all five aboard. Kopassus commandos maintained ground surveillance on the village and on May 15, after confirming the rebels and their hostages had returned, Prabowo mounted another helicopter assault. He designated the rescue mission Operation Cenderawasih (Bird of Paradise).

Timika was experiencing significant unrest. Prabowo’s second rescue attempt was almost aborted when several thousand locals stormed the airport and tried to burn the aircraft before they were repelled by security forces firing rubber bullets. Nine hostages were rescued unharmed but two (both Papuans) died in the operation, reportedly stabbed by the kidnappers. Kopassus commandos killed eight persons on the ground (all claimed to be OPM guerillas) and captured two others. Both Kelly Kwalik and Daniel Kagoya escaped.

Thus, the 134-day hostage drama came to an end. Prabowo and Zacky Anwar had declined to coordinate their actions with the Irian Jaya Regional Command, angering Trikora Commander Major General Dunidja D. and his chief of staff Brigadier General Johny Lumintang. The rescue mission was praised as a success. Armed Forces Commander Feisal Tanjung and Army Chief Hartono approved a plan to upgrade Kopassus from three to five groups and expand the anti-terrorism unit, Detachment 81 (re-designated as Group 5). In conjunction with the reorganization, Prabowo received an extraordinary promotion to major general.

An ICRC representative later suggested Prabowo and his commandos had used white helicopters as part of a deception, violating the Geneva Conventions. The story spread rapidly and was elaborated upon even though Prabowo and others consistently denied the allegations.[7] Confusion apparently arose because a white AirFast commercial helicopter led the assault, followed by two smaller Army Pumas. There were no Red Cross markings on any of the helicopters, although the kidnappers were caught off guard and may have thought the helicopters were carrying the ICRC representative for another bout of negotiations when the surprise assault took place. Due to the confusion and bad press, AirFast refused military requests to use its aircraft in subsequent operations, specifically the mission to rescue local and foreign hostages held by OPM leader Tutus Murib in the Ilaga area in October 2001.[8]


[1] Sejarah TNI-AD, 1974-2004, p. 84.

[2] “Setelah Kata-kata Tidak Berdaya,” Gatra, May 25, 1996.

[3] Sejarah TNI-AD, 1974-2004, p. 84.

[4] Established in 1971 primarily to support the oil and mining industries, AirFast provided helicopter and fixed wing transportation and medical evacuation services. AirFast had an exclusive contract with PT Freeport Indonesia.

[5] Interview with AirFast President Frank Reuneker in Jakarta, December 2004.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Interview with Prabowo Subianto at his Bojong Koneng ranch near Bogor, West Java, November 11, 2009.

[8] Interview with AirFast President Frank Reuneker in Jakarta, December 2004.

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