At least 26 killed in massacre in PNG highlands

7:37 pm on 19 February 2024

By Tim Swanston, ABC

Due to political by-election of Lagaip open, wabag the provincial capital of Enga is put into a caiotic and a standstill. All the business houses and the only BANK OF SOUTH PACIFIC  are closed including the Wabag Primary school and main market.police and defence are out numbered and the situation is tense. By means of hear and say; there are and were people being injured and killed but yet to be confirmed. Also governor Ipatas' son's house was burned to ashes is also yet to confirmed. 14 November 2023.

(file image) Photo: Kanda

Papua New Guinea police have revised the death toll in a massacre in the country's highlands to 26, after revealing they had received the "wrong head count".

Warning: Some of the details in this story are distressing.

Police believe the men were shot dead in an ambush in Enga Province, in a major escalation of tribal fighting in the region.

Local police believe it could be the largest massacre in PNG's highlands in recent history.

Police had provided a higher death toll earlier this morning in the 50s, but Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary acting Superintendent George Kakas said when he sent security forces to reconfirm the number of deaths, they confirmed it was 26.

Graphic videos and photos have emerged of the bodies of the men loaded onto a police truck.

Kakas earlier said officers who responded were "devastated".

"This is by far the largest (killing) I've seen in Enga, maybe in all of Highlands as well, in Papua New Guinea," he said.

"We're all devastated, we're all mentally stressed out. It's really hard to comprehend."

Facing escalating tribal fighting, Enga Province was put into lockdown for several months last year.

Police had been trying to stop the supply of firearms and ammunition into the region, which was supercharging the deadly violence.

It is understood this tribal fight involves the same tribes that killed more than 60 people last year.

Kakas said one of the tribes, along with their allies and mercenaries, were on their way to attack a neighbouring tribe when they were ambushed.

"These tribesmen have been killed all over the countryside, all over the bush," he said.

"Police and defence forces have had to go in to do their best to quell the situation at their own risk.

"We started collecting bodies, scattered all over the battlefield, the roads, the riverside … and they were loaded onto police trucks and taken to the hospital."

He said authorities were still counting "those who were shot, injured and ran off into the bushes" and that more people could have died in the bushes.

Additional security forces have been deployed to the area following the escalation of violence.

Police Commissioner David Manning has also called on provincial and local leaders in Enga to directly intervene with their people to calm tensions.

Enga Governor Peter Ipatas said there was a warning that tribal fighting was about to erupt.

"[This is] a very, very sad occasion for us in the province and it's a bad thing for the country," he said.

"From a provincial perspective, we knew this fight was going to be on and we [alerted] the security forces last week to make sure they took appropriate action to ensure this didn't occur."

Up to 17 tribes involved in fight

Tribal violence has been rife in the Enga region since the last election in 2022, with another flashpoint occurring last September.

On that occasion, the tribe from another village was blamed for a man's death and then ambushed his funeral, killing five people with bush knives and axes.

In the months that followed, a tit-for-tat retribution spiralled out of control.

As more tribes became involved, many villages were raided and burnt down.

Ipatas said the province had been trying to manage the fighting, but with 17 tribes involved in the most recent escalation, it was ultimately up to the security forces to keep the peace.

"It's a very big fight that's not normally in Enga province. This is probably the biggest tribal fight we've ever had," he said.

"The police and security forces must take ownership and be on the ground, assess the situation and take appropriate action.

"Because we know who is fighting, it's not like this is criminal activity that pops up. This is a tribal fight, we know which people are involved."

Acting Superintendent Kakas said the security under his command have tried their best to stop this fighting for months and have "exhausted all our efforts".

"They attend to these fights, these atrocities day in, day out, they have to retrieve the bodies …," he said.

"We have to put up with that on a day in, day out basis."

Commissioner Manning said the proliferation of small weapons in the area has been a concern for police for some time.

"This [massacre] is only made possible through the use of many, many small arms and it is a concern," he told the ABC.

'An act of domestic terrorism'

In a follow up statement, Manning said legislation was being introduced to parliament that will further strengthen the law enforcement capacity of security forces to intervene to prevent acts like this from occurring.

"There is no other way to look at this situation other than it is an act of domestic terrorism," he said.

"…With the increased number of illegal firearms in circulation tougher measures are required particularly in bringing domestic terrorists including weapons smugglers, to justice."

Vice Minister for Works and Highways Miki Kaeok has also called on the government to declare a state of emergency.

He described the situation in his district as a matter of national importance and said it "must be immediately acted on by the government".

"If a state of emergency is declared, all parties directly involved must be thoroughly investigated by the government and those implicated must be sentenced to life imprisonment to set a precedence in Enga Province, the Highlands Region and PNG," he said in a statement.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said news of the massacre was "very disturbing".

Australia has already agreed to expand support and training for PNG police under a security agreement signed last year.

But Albanese suggested Australia would be willing to provide more immediate assistance if PNG requested it.

"We remain available to provide whatever support we can in a practical way to help our friends in PNG," he told ABC Radio in Perth.

-This article was first published by ABC.