Police are warning an “all-out war” could erupt in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province, after 19 people were killed in tribal violence last week.
High-powered weapons, as well as a hand grenade, were used in fighting on Thursday and Friday near a town called Kainantu, resulting in 19 deaths, with many more people unaccounted for and properties destroyed.
The fighting, between the Agarabi and Tapo clans, was over a land ownership dispute and broke out just kilometers outside of Kainantu.
Police said it is believed that the fighting stopped on Saturday and Sunday as some fighters observed the Sabbath, but they fear fighting could escalate.
“A lot of reports coming in that tomorrow will be an all-out war between the two factions as they have by now amassed arms over the weekend,” provincial Police Commander Michael Welly wrote in his report to Papua New Guinean Police Commissioner David Manning.
“More lives are expected to [be lost] tomorrow and onwards if we do not get reinforcement[s] in quickly,” Welly said.
A 28-year-old woman, living in the town had her home burnt down in the fighting and does not know where her husband is.
She said the fighters came in broad daylight.
“I took my two children and ran away, but I don’t know where my husband is. I heard many men were killed, and I am very worried as our children are still young,” she said.
She said her brother-in-law came and told her to flee.
“So I called my brother to come quickly and pick us up,” she said. “When my brother came and got us, I turned back and I saw our home go up in flames, and I cried bitterly.”
Welly said late on Sunday night that the situation was still tense.
“Both sides of the party are fully armed with high-powered weapons, and we are anticipating the worst-case scenario for tomorrow and are beefing up manpower on the ground,” Welly said. “The fight initially began at the end of February and early March over the ownership of the land near the Kundiawa town.”
“Myself and the other local leaders ... intervened at that time and met with both sides to come to a peace settlement,” he said.
“Last week Thursday, both parties from the Agarabi and the Tapo tribe came into town to sign that peace settlement agreement. However, tension was very high at that time and when a fight broke out between two women over a domestic issue, it just triggered the full battle as one party thought they were being attacked and the other party thought the same,” Welly said.
“Twelve people were killed on that Thursday afternoon,” he said.
“The next day, the Agarabi people detonated a hand grenade and the explosion killed seven people from Tapo, who in turn retaliated by burning down the homes of the Agarabi people,” he said.
Manning said that a 15-man team from the Northern Mobile Group was sent in on Friday and are now on the ground to help local police restore peace, while a mobile squad from Lae has also been deployed.
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