Two dead after ambush on MP's convoy in PNG Highlands

5:04 pm on 28 November 2016

Two people were killed in Papua New Guinea's Highlands region after an ambush on a local MP's convoy in Hela province.

Francis Potape

Francis Potape Photo: EMTV

Last Tuesday the Komo Margarima MP, Francis Potape, who is also Hela Governor, was travelling through Komo with the Higher Education Minister Francis Marus, when their convoy came upon a blockade.

The MPs' vehicle was forced to turnaround, although a man in another of the convoy's vehicles was identified as an enemy by the tribesmen manning the blockade.

He was forced out of the vehicle and shot at point blank range by the men at the blockade.

The MPs got away unhurt but another man from Tari died in the subsequent shootout, according to the Hela provincial police commander Michael Welly.

"One other innocent guy, who happened to be in the convoy and was driving the vehicle, they shot him and he just drove off to the drain and obviously died," he said.

"In the process of retreat, our policemen exchanged fire with the clansmen, and one of our guys got shot on the shoulder and on the eyebrow. He's recovering now in the hospital."

Mr Marus, who was touring provincial Higher Education institutions with the governor, said that their convoy was held up for some time at the blockade.

"After almost half and hour of talking and persuasion by the Governor, the warring people allow us to turn our vehicle and drive back," Mr Marus explained.

It was then, as they turned around and drove off from the blockade, that the shootings happened.

Some reports from Tari suggested four people died in the incident, but the police commander said that figure related to another recent tribal conflict elsewhere in Hela.

Last Tuesday's violence in Komo was the latest in a string of tribal clashes this year in Hela, the hub of PNG's landmark LNG gas project.

Meanwhile, the police mobile unit is reported to have launched a reprisal in their pursuit of the perpetrators after the deadly attack.

A Hela-based community worker, Isaac Pulupe, said the tribal warriors who conducted the ambush were from Ligame.

"Then the next morning, LNG security police, hired by (the LNG project developer) ExxonMobil - because one of the policemen that was injured was LNG security police - so they came up and they went for a raid, burning all properties," he said.

"They went extreme, and even innocent people's properties (were burnt), not the warriors' place only."

ExxonMobil denies that it hires police and says it plays no role in the conduct of police operations, although under a Memorandum of Understanding with the PNG police force, the project can "offer support such as transport, fuel, lodging and stipends for the police away from their normal work locations".

A school burnt out as a result of tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea's Hela province.

A school burnt out as a result of tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea's Hela province. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Isaac Pulupe said almost 200 houses in Ligame were burnt or destroyed by the mobile police unit along with much of the village's property and livestock.

However Commander Welly played down this suggestion, explaining that the police mobile squad was asked to go to Ligame to search for the suspects.

"Obviously they went and everybody hid them, so obviously one or two houses were put up in flames, yeah."

One of the two MPs caught up in the ambush, Mr Marus, has defended the conduct of the police during the incident.

"The police acted professionally even with all the illegal high powered firearms pointing at us," he said.

The ambush and shootout have come amid an apparent overall worsening of tribal conflicts in Hela, which is a worry for local authorities as next year's general elections approach.

The situation remains tense with the suspects still at large.

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