PNG’s highlands are turning into a bloody war zone as tribes equip hitmen with high-powered weaponry while outgunned police watch helplessly.
In an escalation of bloodshed, at least 49 people were massacred in an ambush on a raiding party on Sunday in the remote province of Enga, PNG.
Confronting images from near the town of Wabag, 600 kilometers northwest of the PNG capital, Port Moresby, show the dead piled up on the back of a flatbed truck.
The police have not yet completed the body count, but it is the bloodiest incident of tribal violence in the area in recent times.
Royal Papua New Guinea Police Acting Superintendent George Kakas said the massacre was the “biggest massacre” they had seen in Enga province.
Police say at least 49 people have been killed in an ambush in PNG’s remote highlands as bloody inter-tribal war escalates.
‘We are all devastated, we are all mentally stressed. “It’s really hard to understand,” he said.
‘These tribesmen have been killed throughout the countryside, throughout the jungle.
“The police and defense forces have had to do everything possible to quell the situation at their own risk.
“We started collecting bodies, scattered all over the battlefield, the roads, the river bank… and we loaded them into police trucks and took them to the hospital.”
Most of the dead were reported to be from the Sikin and Kaikin tribes, which have been involved in a long-running deadly feud with the Ambulin tribe.
The tribesmen, many of them hired gunmen from 17 different tribes in the region and neighboring provinces, went on a rampage with an arsenal of M16s, AR15s, automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, according to Superintendent Kakas.
Tribes are arming themselves with high-powered firearms, leading to rising casualties in PNG
A senior police officer told the ABC that his officers were not “supermen” and would not “stand between warring tribes when high-powered firearms are used.”
Local peace advocate JAmes Komengi said tribal fighting was an ancient practice, but what was new was massacre caused by high-calibre weaponry.
“The government needs to find out where the high-powered weapons come from and where the ammunition supplies are,” he told ABC.
‘And they should map the areas where the weapons are and devise strategies to destroy, recover or eliminate them.
‘The government should have intervened a long time ago. But they do nothing and kill people like dogs and pigs.’
He said the police were “overpowered” because they were not as heavily armed as the factions they were trying to control.
Enga province has been closed as authorities try to stop the flow of weapons and ammunition into the area.
Tribal fights can break out for many reasons, such as political differences, land disputes, or intermarriage issues.
The current dispute is reported to have started when a man’s death was blamed on a tribe from another village.
That tribe then ambushed the man’s funeral, killing five people with knives and axes, sparking a spiral of violence with vvillages being raided and burned.
Last July, the area was closed for three months to address the ongoing tribal conflict.
Authorities described the massacre as the “biggest murder” they had seen in Enga province.
Bodies were seen lying on a flatbed truck following the brutal massacre in the PNG highlands.
PNG locals lamented what was happening on social media.
“We are experiencing a total breakdown of law and order in our country,” one wrote on a PNG news page on Facebook.
“It’s happening in the highlands and coastal provinces.”
People should know that our police personnel cannot solve our law and order situations alone. Now we have already involved our military and CIS personnel.’
Local Enga MP Miki Kaeokhas called for a state of emergency to curb violence in the province.
Kaeok said immediate intervention was needed to end the fighting and that police needed powers to stop the flow of weapons into the conflict.
“Businessmen, leaders and educated elites are supplying weapons and ammunition and financing the participation of gunmen,” he said.
Papua New Guinea is located just north of Australia, and Sunday’s massacre in Enga province is estimated to be the largest massacre in the area in recent times.
“They must be identified and their business accounts carefully checked to verify their direct involvement.”
Enga Governor Sir Peter Ipatas accused police of failing to heed warnings.
“From a provincial perspective, we knew that this fight was going to continue and [alerted] “I visited security forces last week to make sure they were taking appropriate measures to ensure this did not happen,” he said.
‘Unfortunately, the security forces were complacent and we have this very, very high number of deaths.
‘Police and security forces must take responsibility and be on the ground, assess the situation and take appropriate action.
“I think they have not been proactive and as a result, this fight has continued since last year.”
On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said news of the massacre was “very disturbing.”
“We remain available to provide whatever support we can practically, of course, to help our friends in PNG,” he said.
A PNG police unit of 200 officers will be trained in Australia to deal with the situation.