Nine people have been killed and hundreds of properties destroyed in three days of ethnic clashes in Lae, the second biggest city in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the volatile Pacific nation which is home to more than 1,000 ethnic groups.
PNG's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, yesterday threatened to impose a state of emergency in Lae, an important port and industrial centre. Police reinforcements have been flown into the city, where schools and businesses closed late last week.
The trouble erupted on Thursday after a group of local youths presented a petition to the provincial government expressing their concern at rising crime levels. Unhappy with the official response, they began throwing stones at government buildings and passing traffic.
On Friday and Saturday, they looted homes and businesses belonging to settlers from the remote Highlands region, whom they blame for the lawlessness, which includes a spate of muggings at bus stops.
According to police in Papua New Guinea, which occupies the eastern half of New Guinea island and numerous offshore islands, up to 1,000 people have been left homeless. "They have no houses. They have makeshift tents, no drinking water, no food," a police spokesman told Australian Associated Press. One long-time Lae resident, Meck Minnala, said the clashes were terrifying. "The rioting was big," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "They were throwing stones at each other, even in the restaurants. A stone penetrated my window. They went on a rampage."
One man was shot dead by police, who say he was threatening them with a home-made gun. The body of another man was found in the burnt ruins of a house. It was not immediately clear how the other seven people died.
Lae has the reputation of being one of PNG's most violent cities, but locals complain that crime has increased. They claim that the Highlanders, who have moved into town and set up camp in the squatter settlements that ring Lae, are responsible.