Pregnant women and children are among a group of people murdered in tribal massacres in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
At least 16 victims were shot and knifed to death in an overnight attack on a remote village in the Pacific Ocean nation’s Hela province.
The killings are thought to have been in retaliation for an earlier tribal raid that left at up to seven people dead.
Pictures posted on Facebook showed bodies wrapped in mosquito nets and laid on palm leaves by the side of a road in the village of Karida, where the latest massacre took place earlier this week.
“Today is one of the saddest days of my life,” said PNG’s prime minister, James Marape, who vowed to hunt down the killers and push for them to face the death penalty.
Tribal conflict has long ravaged the poor but resource-rich country, but the latest clashes mark a brutal step up in the violence.
The death tolls from the latest attacks varied in local media reports.
Television station EMTV reported 23 people had died in the two attacks, which it said were the latest in more than 20 years of tribal clashes involving multiple clans.
But the Post-Courier newspaper, based in the nation’s capital Port Moresby, reported that as many as 24 people had been killed in the villages of Karida and Peta since Saturday.
Six people were ambushed and killed near Peta on Saturday, Hela police chief Teddy Augwi told the publication.
He said the victims’ relatives had then retaliated with rifles the next day, killing between 16 and 18 people at Karida, including pregnant women.
Pills Pimua Kolo, a health worker stationed in Karida, said in a Facebook post that some of the victims had been “chopped into pieces” and it was “hard to recognise their body parts”.
Eight children, aged between one and 15, were among the victims along with two pregnant women, EMTV reported.
“This is not a tribal fight where the opposing villagers face each other on field,” Mr Augwi said. “This is a fight in guerrilla warfare, meaning they play hide-and-seek and ambush their enemies.”
“It’s a very sad story,” added Philip Undialu, the governor of Hela province in PNG’s rugged central highlands. “This has escalated into the massacre of innocent women and kids. Both attacks were made in an innocent community where people were not expecting it and all of us are in a state of shock.”
Mr Marape, who became prime minister in May, said Hela needed more police officers to quell the violence.
Officers on the region’s mobile police squad had been reassigned to protect an ExxonMobil gas field, according to local media.
“How can a province of 400,000 people function with policing law and order with under 60 policemen, and occasional operational military and police that does no more then band aid maintenance,” Mr Marape wrote on Facebook.
He added: “To all who have guns and kill and hide behind the mask of community, learn from what I will do to criminals who killed innocent people. I am not afraid to use strongest measures in law on you.”
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