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Dozens of men killed in Papua New Guinea tribal violence, police say

Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape is shown addressing the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2022, at U.N. headquarters. Tribal violence in the Enga region has intensified since elections in 2022 that maintained Prime Minister James Marape's administration.
Julia Nikhinson
/
AP
Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape is shown addressing the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2022, at U.N. headquarters. Tribal violence in the Enga region has intensified since elections in 2022 that maintained Prime Minister James Marape's administration.

MELBOURNE, Australia — At least 26 combatants and an unconfirmed number of bystanders were killed in a gunbattle between warring tribes in Papua New Guinea, police said Monday.

A tribe, their allies and mercenaries were on their way to attack a neighboring tribe when they were ambushed Sunday in Enga province in the South Pacific nation's remote highlands, Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary Acting Superintendent George Kakas said.

Police Commissioner David Manning later described the clash as a "gunbattle between warring tribes." An unconfirmed number of villagers also were killed. Police reinforcements were sent to the scene of the battle, Manning said.

"At this point, it's not clear exactly how far we have moved into the conflict there," Manning told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "But the intent is to regain control or have a significant presence in that conflict area and then work ... our way through our procedures in dealing with this type of incident."

Kakas initially said 53 combatants had died. But security forces later revised the death toll down to 26.

Bodies were collected from the battlefield, roads and the riverside, then loaded onto police trucks and taken to the hospital. Authorities were still counting "those who were shot, injured and ran off into the bushes," Kakas said.

Papua New Guinea is a diverse nation of 10 million mostly subsistence farmers speaking 800 languages. Internal security has become an increasing challenge for its government as China, the United States and Australia seek closer security ties to the country in a strategically important part of the South Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his government was ready to assist Papua New Guinea, which is Australia's nearest neighbor and the largest single recipient of Australian foreign aid.

"That is very disturbing the news that has come out of Papua New Guinea," Albanese said before the death toll was revised down.

"We remain available to provide whatever support we can in a practical way, of course, to help our friends in PNG," Albanese added.

Albanese said Australia was already providing "considerable support" for Papua New Guinea and was helping train the country's police officers.

Tribal violence in the Enga region has intensified since elections in 2022 that maintained Prime Minister James Marape's administration. Elections and accompanying allegations of cheating and process anomalies have always triggered violence throughout the country.

Enga Gov. Peter Ipatas said there were warnings that tribal fighting was about to erupt.

"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," Ipatas said.

Ipatas described the violence as a "very, very sad occasion for us in the province and it's a bad thing for the country."

Scores of people have died in tribal fighting in the Enga region in the past year.

Port Moresby's Post-Courier newspaper has reported that high-powered firearms used in the recent fighting made it risky for police to enter the battlefields.

Police said they were assisted by the military in protecting the general public and government property.

Papua New Guinea government lawyer Oliver Nobetau expected more lives would be lost in retaliation for the massacre.

"There's a big concern that this will continue on. Revenge killings tend to be a normal thing that happens," said Nobetau, who is on temporary assignment to the Sydney-based international policy think tank Lowy Institute.

"Tribal violence is something that happens commonly, but never to this scale," Nobetau added. His comments related to the higher death toll, but he later said they still applied to the revised toll of 26.

Police had limited resources to deal with such violence on a "massive scale," Nobetau said.

"Tribal violence is something that is prevalent and the government with its limited resources will try to deploy the police wherever they can to try to curb the security issues," he said.

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