Death toll from clash in Papua New Guinea province climbs to 49

Harlyne Joku and Stephen Wright
Port Moresby and Sydney
Death toll from clash in Papua New Guinea province climbs to 49 This handout picture released by the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary on Feb. 19, 2024 shows officials patrolling near the town of Wabag in Enga province, 600 kilometers (372 miles) northwest of the capital Port Moresby.
Handout/Papua New Guinea police/AFP

The death toll from a gun battle between warring ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea’s volatile Enga province last weekend has nearly doubled to 49 as more bodies are recovered, police said Tuesday.

The violence, extreme even by the standards of Papua New Guinea’s conflict-prone highlands, has sent shockwaves through the Pacific island country barely more than a month after it was rocked by riots and looting in the capital Port Moresby.

Police said in a statement that soldiers in Enga and other highlands provinces have been seconded into the police force and warned of severe consequences for “any tribesman who raises a weapon.” 

Similar police warnings have been issued in response to past violence in the province but to little long-term effect. About 150 people have died in tribal fighting in Enga since it escalated in April last year, according to an official in the provincial government who didn’t want to be named. 

“Police can confirm that 49 bodies have been recovered at this point,” the police statement said. “It is possible that additional bodies will be found as police continue to search the area.” 

Those killed were hired gunmen, the statement said, underscoring an influx of high-powered weapons into the highlands and claims that tribal conflicts have been fueled by local powerbrokers.

Enga province’s police commander George Kakas said on Monday that at least a dozen tribes were involved in the weekend violence. One group was ambushed and massacred, according to a police summary of events.  

The latest example of Papua New Guinea’s tenuous grip on stability coincides with the parliamentary opposition’s attempt to get the legislature to vote on a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister James Marape. 

Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby was engulfed by chaos on Jan. 10 after its police stopped work to protest a cut in the pay of government employees that was purportedly caused by a payroll system glitch.

At least 16 people died during the looting and arson that caused a severe blow to an economy already failing to provide sufficient jobs and incomes. 

The opposition’s efforts were deflated last week when government lawmakers unanimously supported a surprise motion of confidence in Marape.

Police Commissioner David Manning said preventing further tension in Enga is a challenge because of the generations of fighting that have occurred between ethnic groups in the region. 

"These ethnic fights stem from wicked people who in the end cause the deaths of their own people when they stir up a fight,” he said in a statement.

"I recognise it is hard because there are threats and intimidation involved, but community leaders have to step up [to] work with police to identify the ringleaders.”

Stability for Papua New Guinea, which gained its independence from Australia in 1975, has remained elusive as it grapples with tribal violence and challenges such as corruption and lack of roads and basic healthcare in many regions. Parts of the mountainous country have been largely outside central government control for decades.

The country, which is home to an estimated 12 million people, has been a focus of the intensifying China-U.S. rivalry in the Pacific. 

It signed a defense cooperation agreement with the United States last year, while China has been making efforts to improve security relations by offering equipment to police and providing the funding for a military hospital.

Papua New Guinea has one police officer for about every 1,800 people, nearly four times less than the level recommended by the United Nations to ensure law and order, according to a Griffith Asia Institute report released last year.

The ratio of police to people has declined substantially in the past half century as Papua New Guinea’s population more than tripled.


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