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At least 26 killed in Papua New Guinea in major tribal clashes

Police describe ‘largest’ flare-up of violence in recent history in Enga province as tribal groups clash with high-powered rifles

Shweta Sharma
Monday 19 February 2024 07:32 GMT
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Related video: Mass looting in Papua New Guinea capital captured in drone footage

At least 26 people have been killed in the latest outbreak of deadly tribal violence in the remote Highlands region of Papua New Guinea.

The violence between two tribal groups and their allies began on Sunday in the Wapenamanda district of the Enga province in what one police officer described as the “largest” flare-up of violence the region has seen.

Dead bodies were recovered from the roadside, grasslands and hills and more are expected to be found in the bush, according to ABC.

The death toll was revised down by police from an earlier figure of 64, although local media reports continued to include higher numbers of both combatants and local civilians killed.

Police confirmed fighting was ongoing between Ambulin tribes and their allies and Skikin tribes with their allies.

Papua New Guinea, which is home to 800 distinct ethnic groups, has a long history of tribal violence over issues ranging from land and wealth disputes to historical animosities.

Internal security has become a major challenge for the government and attracted international attention as China, Australia and the US seek closer ties.

Police started collecting dead bodies after the fighting began at 4am local time Sunday around the town of Wabag, roughly 600km northwest of the capital Port Moresby.

"This is by far the largest [killing] I’ve seen in Enga, maybe in all of Highlands as well," said George Kakas, a senior police officer, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

"We’re all devastated, we’re all mentally stressed out. It’s really hard to comprehend."

Graphic photos and videos showed dead bodies, some of them stripped, lying on the side of the road and piled up on the truck.

Local newspaper the Post-Courier said a stench has filled the area and the work to recover bodies was progressing slowly.

"These tribesmen have been killed all over the countryside, all over the bush," Mr Kakas told ABC.

Police said the tribals were using “high-powered guns”, such as AK47, M16 and M4 rifles as well as homemade firearms.

Papua New Guinea government lawyer Oliver Nobetau said more lives could be lost in retaliation for the massacre and warned the police resources are not enough to deal with violence that was on such a “massive scale”.

“Tribal violence is something that happens commonly, but never to this scale,” Mr Nobetau added.

“Tribal violence is something that is prevalent and the government with its limited resources will try to deploy the police wherever they can to try to curb the security issues,” he said.

Governor of Enga Peter Ipatas said there had been warnings that tribal fighting was about to erupt.

"From a provincial perspective, we knew this fight was going to be on and we (alerted) the security forces last week to make sure they took appropriate action to ensure this didn’t occur," Mr Ipatas told ABC.

He described the violence as a "very, very sad occasion for us in the province and it’s a bad thing for the country”.

In the capital, opposition party members demanded prime minister James Marape’s administration take urgent action and deploy additional troops in the area.

“We call on the government to immediately establish where the guns and bullets are coming from to fuel this senseless violence,” they said in a statement, according to the Post-Courier.

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese said they were ready to assist Papua New Guinea, which is Australia’s nearest neighbour and the largest single recipient of Australian foreign aid.

"That is very disturbing the news that has come out of Papua New Guinea," Mr Albanese said. "We remain available to provide whatever support we can in a practical way, of course, to help our friends in PNG.”

The tribal violence has escalated in the Enga region following the 2022 elections, which saw Mr Marape maintaining power. Elections in Papua New Guinea have historically been marred by allegations of cheating and procedural irregularities, often serving as catalysts for widespread violence across the nation.

In August last year, more than 150 people were killed in the Highlands and graphic visuals showed men tied up and being dragged behind a truck as onlookers cheered.

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