Indonesia police seeks two Chinese suspects in Nickel plant explosion

Police and workers stand near the site of a furnace blast at a PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel smelting plant in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Dec. 24, 2023. [AP Photo]

Indonesian police Monday named two Chinese nationals as suspects in the explosion of a smelting furnace at a Chinese-owned nickel plant on Sulawesi Island that killed 21 workers and injured dozens of others.

Four Chinese and nine Indonesian workers died instantly on December 24 when the furnace at PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel, or PT ITSS, exploded while they were repairing it. Eight others died in the following days while being treated at hospitals. Of the total number of workers killed, eight were from China.

The furnace was located inside a nickel processing-based industrial area under the management of PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, known as PT IMIP, in Morowali regency of Central Sulawesi province.

Following their investigation, police had enough evidence to designate the two Chinese nationals, identified only by their initials, ZG and Z, as suspects, said Djoko Wienartono, the Central Sulawesi police spokesperson.

ZG was the furnace supervisor and Z was his vice supervisor, Wienartono said.

“ZG and Z were the persons in charge of the furnace when the explosion occurred,” Wienartono said at a news conference in Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, “They have violated the company’s operational standard.”

He said police would bring a criminal charge of negligence leading to death or serious injury. The maximum penalty for conviction of the charge is five years in prison.

The police investigation showed that the furnace was under maintenance and not operating at the time of the explosion, which was triggered by fire from “residual slag in the furnace” that flowed out, causing an explosion when the fire came into contact with nearby oxygen cylinders used for welding, Wienartono said.

The blast was the latest in a series of fatal incidents at nickel smelting plants in Indonesia that are part of China’s ambitious transnational development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Nickel is a key component of batteries for electric vehicles.

Two dump truck operators were killed last April when they were engulfed by a wall of black, sludgelike material following the collapse of a nickel waste disposal site in Central Sulawesi province, which has the largest nickel reserves in Indonesia.

In January 2023, two workers, including a Chinese national, were killed in riots that involved workers of the two nations at an Indonesia-China joint venture in neighboring North Morowali regency.

In 2022, a loader truck ran over and killed a Chinese worker while he was repairing a road in PT IMIP’s mining area, and an Indonesian man burned to death when a furnace in the company’s factory exploded.

Nearly 50% of PT IMIP’s shares are owned by a Chinese holding company, and the rest are owned by two Indonesian companies. It began smelter operations in 2013 and is now the largest nickel-based industrial area in Indonesia.