Police are warning a “all-out war” could erupt in Eastern Highlands province in Papua New Guinea, after 19 people were killed in tribal violence late last week.
High-powered weapons, as well as a hand grenade, were used in fighting on Thursday and Friday near Kainantu Town in the east of the country, causing 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 miles outside from Kainantu Town in Eastern Highlands Province.
Police say they believe fighting stopped on Saturday and Sunday as some fighters observed the Sabbath but fear fighting could escalate today.
“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 Police Commissioner David Manning, as he requested backup be sent to the area. “More lives are expected to lose tomorrow and onwards if we do not get reinforcement in quickly.”
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 told the Guardian.
She said her brother-in-law came and told her to flee with her children. “So I called my brother to come quickly and pick us up.”
“When my brother came and got us, I turned back and I saw our home go up in flames, and I cried bitterly,” she said.
Welly told the Guardian 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.”
“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, including local MP Johnson Tuke and Goroka MP Aiye Tambua, intervened at that time and met with both sides to come to a peace settlement.”
“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.”
“Because there was high tension, the commotion of the two women fighting just triggered a full blown-out battle and all hell broke loose, and 12 people were killed on that Thursday afternoon.”
“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.”
“So far, there are 19 people killed but I believe there may be more unreported deaths. I also can’t say how many houses were burnt but there was plenty and we will have to do a count.”
“Tensions are still high. Police are doing their best they can right now – we have set up a boundary and told them not bring the fight into the town area, we have police stationed on both sides.”
Police Commissioner David 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 and a mobile squad (MS 13) from Lae have also been deployed to the area and should arrive today (Sunday).
Local MP Johnson Tuke, who is also on the ground, said that he was aware of the situation and his office, was working with police to address the issue.