Killings in Papua New Guinea highlands fueled by hired gunmen, police say

Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby
Killings in Papua New Guinea highlands fueled by hired gunmen, police say A file photo showing Papua New Guinea police on a road leading to Parliament house in Port Moresby on May 28, 2019. Police are struggling to contain escalating tribal violence in the highlands province of Enga.

A video of naked and mutilated corpses being dragged behind a utility vehicle on a highway in the Papua New Guinea highlands shows how escalating tribal conflict is being fueled by political and business elites, police said.

The gruesome video has circulated widely online in Papua New Guinea and, according to police, depicts the aftermath of one of the clashes in Enga province last week.

Enga’s police commander George Kakas told BenarNews on Tuesday that police had retrieved 11 bodies in the past few days – all apparently killed in the one episode of violence. It’s unclear how many people have died in the recent wider tribal violence in the province.

Kakas said he believes highlands power brokers are hiring gunmen to carry out attacks and fueling tribal violence.

“A new and evil phenomenon is creeping in,” Kakas said. “We have hired men involved, business and educated elites and well-to-do people are funding these activities, to hire gunmen and purchase ammunition.

“I warn all gunmen not to get involved in a tribal fight that is not yours.”

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 more than nine 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 in May, 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 earlier this year. 

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

enga (1).jpg
A cropped screenshot from a video recording shows a vehicle that towed corpses along a highway in Papua New Guinea’s Enga province.

The video, which has caused outrage in Papua New Guinea, shows dead mercenaries hired by the Silin and Kaekin tribes who were killed as they tried to enter a rival group’s lands to carry out an attack.

“The bodies are of gunmen who tried to creep into the Ambulin territory and were trapped in the culvert and shot dead by the Ambulin tribe,” Kakas said. “They were later strewn on the roadside as a message to other tribes.” 

About 70 police officers are trying to keep order in the area since violence broke out last week, drawing in thousands of people from several tribes, many of them armed.

Papua New Guinea’s Police Commissioner David Manning said on Sunday that perpetrators of “heinous” violence would face the full force of the state, but also acknowledged that “security forces cannot arrest or kill our way out of tribal fighting in Enga.”

Earlier this month, Manning authorized officers to use lethal force to quell violence in Enga.

“We all know the tribesmen going out with guns and bush knives are being manipulated by politicians at all levels,” he said. “These are puppeteers shedding the blood of their tribesmen for their personal gain.” 

Hired gunmen are also being used to conduct raids on villages and are being slaughtered “because they do not know the lay of the land they are threatening,” Manning said.

Papua New Guinea’s government and Barrick Gold Corp., one of the world’s largest gold mining companies, have said they hope to reopen the Porgera gold mine in Enga province before the end of 2023 after a hiatus of several years.

Prime Minister James Marape said on Monday it was critical that the highway remains open in Enga as it provides links to the province’s main airport at Wapenamanda, the Porgera mine and other vital locations.


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