Riots that erupted last week in Papua New Guinea could turn into a full-scale conflict, locals have said, as anger and chaos grip the Southern Highlands province.
In the last week, protesters incensed by the failure of a court challenge relating to an election result have set fire to a commercial plane, government buildings and the home of the local governor, as well as ambushing two police cars, The Guardian reports.
The protests escalated over the weekend as a group of 300 to 400 people, armed with machetes, machine guns and high-powered rifles, marched on Mendi, the capital of the Southern Highlands province, calling for the resignation of prime minister Peter O’Neill.
So far there have been no deaths during the protests, but locals fear that the violence could escalate.
“It’s very very tense. They are all armed, they’re even armed with military-issued weapons,” said Lucielle Paru, a local activist who was in Mendi. She said the protesters were so angry they seem to be “pushing for a civil war”.
PNG is due to host the Apec summit in November of this year and O’Neill has been keen to reassure other world leaders of the security of the country ahead of the meeting. Justin Tkatchenko, the country’s minister for Apec, told local media last week’s unrest would not affect plans for the summit, which is due to be attended by Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull.
The violence began over the failure of a court challenge made by candidate Joseph Kobol over an election for governor held last year. Protesters supporting Kobol set fire to an aeroplane on the tarmac and were joined by between 100 and 200 men armed with sticks and guns who arrived from surrounding villages. They set fire to the national and district court buildings, the commerce and industry building and governor William Powi’s residence.
O’Neill, who hails from the Southern Highlands, announced a state of emergency the same day and brought in a curfew between 6pm and 6am. More than 100 soldiers have since arrived in the province, but O’Neill is yet to visit.
“It could blow up,” said Paru. “Those who are in Mendi are even suggesting to come down to the capital city, since the prime minister won’t come up to his own province.”
“They’re not showing that they want to stand down. You even feel it here in the capital of Port Moresby, there are group factions now gathering to discuss this issue.”
Martyn Namorong, a writer based in Port Moresby, who was in Mendi last year during the dispute over the election result, said the people in Mendi he had spoken to described the mood as “calm but tense”, though he added “there is a risk of civil war in which rival parties fight each other and against the security forces.”
The United Nations evacuated their staff in the Southern Highlands to Mt Hagen because of the violence and the International Committee of the Red Cross have suspended their operations in the area.
“It’s difficult to predict how this is going to evolve,” said Ahmad Hallak, the ICRC’s deputy head of mission for Papua New Guinea. “But what we usually see is that the situation escalates dramatically and then usually quietens down pretty quickly.”