30 Apr 2012

PNG soldiers deployed to Highlands operations

4:48 pm on 30 April 2012

Papua New Guinea soldiers have been deployed to the Highlands region where security problems are threatening two major resource projects.

A month ago, the O'Neill government issued a callout order for security forces to Hela province and Porgera in neighbouring Enga province.

Landowner disputes have disrupted key construction work in Hela's Hides area for Exxon Mobil's liquified natural gas project, while Porgera's large gold mine has ongoing problems related to illegal mining.

Johnny Blades reports:

Military personnel had already arrived in Hela in January after the Tumbi landslide which, along with a series of landowner disputes, had halted work on the LNG project.

The Defence Force is giving little away on details about this latest deployment.

But its Chief of Staff, Captain Tom Ur, confirms that a platoon of 30 has flown in to the region in recent days and he denies suggestions a state of emergency would be declared.

"So there's no state of emergency but just a callout which allows the troops to go up and assist the police. That's a call from the Police Commissioner for us to assist him. Our aim is really the pre-election activities so that we can help people have a free and fair election."

A former PNG military commander Major General Jerry Singirok says the government also needs to reassure foreign investors on security.

It's important that the investors see the government is concerned about the major investments. The deployment, I believe, is timely. Also it's an act of deterrent. If the militia groups or warring factions or criminals or you name it, if they believe they can disrupt these developmental operations then obviously the government has a state responsibility, a function, to give them that confidence and a certain degree of deterrence.

However, local communities have expressed uncertainty about how the military presence will go down with tribes in volatile Hela.

While in Porgera, the long-running problem with illegal miners at the Barrick Gold-owned mine is happening on a Special mining lease which is also a residential area for impoverished locals.

For years Mark Ekepa with the Porgera Landowners Association has been calling for resettlement of his local community - he doesn't feel the security situation warrants troop deployment.

Police personnel can handle it. But because of their involvement in this illegal mining seen inside the mine site and all these illegal miners are entering the mine site and there's so much disturbance. So they're deploying the Defence Force up. But that won't solve the issue, that won't solve the problem. That will just chase out the illegal miners from the open pit. But what about people living around the Special Mine Lease area, like myself? I live within the SML.

Major General Singirok says the role troops are to play in these theatres must be clearly defined because they will be operating under the Police Commissioner.