Exxon worker released after hostage incident in PNG's Hela

3:35 pm on 23 November 2017

A hostage situation in Papua New Guinea's Highlands involving an ExxonMobil worker has been peacefully resolved in a province bogged down with tribal fighting.

Hela Province Tribesmen

Hela Province Tribesmen Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

According to police, several days ago an expatriate worker with Exxon's Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in Hela province was kidnapped and held hostage by a disgruntled landowner group.

The group is understood to be frustrated with the government over non-payment of LNG project commitments.

Hela's police commander, Superintendent Michael Welly, has confirmed the hostage incident.

"There was an expatriate who was taken hostage a couple of days back at the Angore (LNG Project) wellpad and he was fortunately released back unharmed the next day after the kidnappers sat down with the company."

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil PNG has moved non-essential staff away from its LNG project operations in Hela province.

A spokesperson for Exxon said that due to recent community tension in Hela areas of Hides, Angore and Komo, the company had also suspended non-essential work.

Hela's capital Tari, and other areas in the province such as Komo and Hides - all areas near key infrastructure for the $19 billion US dollar LNG Project - have been riddled by fighting with high-powered weapons in recent weeks.

Young men brandishing bushknives are a common sight in Tari.

Young men brandishing bushknives are a common sight in Tari. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The former mayor of Tari, George Tagobe, says several men were shot dead in the province this week alone, amidst an ongoing payback cycle.

He said while this year's general election was widely believed to have been rigged in Hela, tribal fighting in the intervening three months was not related.

"The warlords are hunting their enemies, hunting them down. They're driving around and shooting down people, killing people just like nobody's business," said Mr Tagobe.

He said there was significant frustration in the province because the government kept stalling over paying tens of millions of dollars in project commitments it owed the landowners.

"The government has no money to pay them, I think. So they are just giving them false promises. But I think the people have a right to ask for their royalties. The government has to pay that."

Reduced police force struggling to contain unrest

Superintendent Welly confirmed that there were multiple cases of ongoing fighting between various Hela tribes, but dismissed ground reports that the situation was increasingly out of control.

LNG Project facility, Hela Province, Papua New Guinea

LNG Project facility, Hela Province, Papua New Guinea Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

The former Hela Governor Francis Potape and others have criticised police for not doing enough to contain unrest and arrest local warlords who are driving the fighting.

Yet Superintendent Welly conceded Hela's police contingent was limited in its ability to respond to outbursts of fighting.

"The size of the police in the province has decreased due to the fact that two of my policemen were murdered around late September near Mendi, and obviously all my policemen from Southern Highlands based in Hela had to withdraw in fear of any payback or retaliation."

He said this had cut the Hela police force of around 100 almost in half.

However, Mr Potape said the lack of police manpower was an old excuse which didn't wash with him, given the recent deployment of defence force personnel to Hela.

"That is more than firepower to move in and start making arrests of people who are fighting on the roads, affecting the landowners and so forth," said mr Potape.

"These recent tribal fights have actually spread to the Hides project area, and on to the Hides gas conditioning plant. So it is affecting Exxon and Oil Search workers, and also the general public."

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