Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo on Monday pledged to continue the hunt for the country’s most-wanted suspected terrorist, Santoso, despite the deaths of 13 soldiers in a helicopter crash in Poso regency, Central Sulawesi.
“Operation Tinombala will go on. There are victims in every battle,” Gatot said in Palu, referring to the joint military and police operation set up to hunt Santoso alias Abu Wardah, the leader of the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT) terror group, and his followers.
Among the victims of Sunday’s crash was Palu Taduloko military commander and Operation Tinombala deputy chief Col. Saiful Anwar.
Gatot denied that the TNI helicopter had been shot down by its quarry, instead blaming bad weather for the crash.
“If that’s what people are saying, let them. Everyone has the right to speculate. But one thing is for sure, the helicopter crashed because of the weather,” he told journalists in Palu, adding that the TNI would wait for the investigation results before reaching a conclusion.
All victims of the crash were taken to Jakarta on Monday to be buried at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in South Jakarta.
In the wake of the crash, Gatot flew immediately to Palu to monitor the situation and, as a representative of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, offer condolences.
In Jakarta, presidential spokesman Johan Budi said that Jokowi had received the results of a preliminary investigation carried out by the Office of the Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister, confirming that bad weather was behind the crash.
“The initial report found that the incident was caused by natural factors such as lightning,” Johan told reporters at the State Palace, adding that the investigation into the accident was still ongoing.
Separately, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu similarly dismissed allegations that the helicopter had been shot down by Santoso’s men, insisting that the militant group did not have such capability.
The minister said that the helicopter was relatively new, having been produced in 2012, adding that his ministry was looking into a serious of crashes of new aircraft, including this latest incident.
Last month, a Brazilian-made Super Tucano used by the Air Force as a training aircraft crashed in a densely populated area of Malang, East Java, injuring three people.
“I am surprised that crashes keep happening. We will see whether the Poso crash had anything to do with engine problems or bad weather. It needs a thorough investigation,” Ryamizard said.
National Police chief Comr. Gen. Badrodin Haiti said that the cause of the crash was still being investigated, but assured the public that there was no suspicion of foul play.
“The causes are still being investigated by the military. It may have been a result of bad weather or something similar,” Badrodin told reporters in Jakarta on Monday.
At least 2,500 TNI and National Police officers have been on deployment since January, hunting for Santoso and around 34 of his followers, who are suspected of plotting guerrilla attacks against security officers while hiding in the forests of Poso.
Newly installed National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) chief Insp. Gen Tito Karnavian said Poso’s mountainous and forested terrain complicated the hunt for Santoso, leading to Operation Tinombala being extended.
He expressed confidence that the joint operation would succeed in bringing Santoso and the MIT to justice.
“I believe the personnel are capable. They have mapped the area, and now know it well,” Tito said, adding that Santoso’s group had shrunk to around 30 people.