Deadly guerilla warfare maintains grip on PNG's Enga

4:55 pm on 14 August 2017

At least twenty people have died in election-related violence since vote counting began last month in Papua New Guinea's Enga province.

PNG's election has finished except in one electorate in the Highlands region where unrest linked to ballot box disputes continues in several towns.

However the violence is worst in Enga's capital Wabag where police say six people died since Friday after fresh fighting involving supporters of the ousted member for Kandep Open, Don Polye.

Supporters of election candidate Alfred Manase take to the streets in Wabag town, as violence erupts in Enga's provincial capital, 22 July 2017.

Supporters of election candidate Alfred Manase take to the streets in Wabag town, as violence erupts in Enga's provincial capital, 22 July 2017. Photo: Supplied

Mr Polye's supporters came to Wabag town last month from the more rural villages of Kandep. In Wabag they were acommodated by the Kii tribe. Members of this tribe have been involved in the latest fighting, against another local tribe, the Kala, who were the target of arson attacks earlier this month after the declaration of the Kandep result. The Kala were targetted because one of their tribesmen is the provincial administrator who Don Polye's supporters blame for irregularities in the vote count.

The groups fighting have been using military assault weapons which include AR15s and Russian-made AK47s. While he has hundreds of security force personnel at his disposal, Enga's Provincial Police Commander, George Kakas, admits it has become difficult to control the fighting.

"We've been trying to seperate the two from facing off, facing eachother but it's been a bit difficult because they've been coming through the mountains, the valleys and the rivers, where it's difficult terrain for us to go down," he said.

"We've been just observing the main highway, and protecting government assets and the banks, provincial government administrative building, the post office and schools."

According to Mr Kakas, there are at least twenty people who have died in the fighting of the past month. It could be more, he suggested, but since warring parties tended to take the corpses of their fallen tribesmen back to their villages, it was hard to give an exact death count.

Enga Provincial Police Commander Superintendent George Kakas.

Enga Provincial Police Commander Superintendent George Kakas. Photo: google+ / Kakas

Rampage

With the fighting having developed into guerilla warfare, the need for a functioning hospital couldn't be more pronounced. But Wabag hospital remains closed down after being subject to a rampage by supporters of a losing Enga regional candidate late last month.

Due to the rampage, three babies are understood to have died instantly while still in their incubators. Dozens of people were also injured at the hospital, according to local media.

Meanwhile, last week, a Bangladeshi man died in a fire in Wabag's central business area late last week. Police are not certain whether the fire was linked to the ongoing violence. But it's clear that the Enga capital is an extremely dangerous place to be.

Mr Kakas wanted political and tribal leaders to tell their supporters to stop the fighting.

"As a leader, a national leader, former national leader, leader of the Kandep people, we are expecting Polye to use his own initiative. If he's a leader he should be the first person to tell these people to leave."

Don Polye says he has made repeated calls for those involved in fighting to stop, but that the situation has lapsed into a cycle of retribution typical of inter-tribal conflict in PNG which is difficult to contain.

"When lives have been lost on either side, what they would want to do is they would want to take refenge on that one life, or however many lives lost," he explained.

"When lives are lost and when they're on the revenge-taking mode, it is very challenging sometimes to even stop. The fight continues regardless of the efforts we put in."

Papua New Guinea opposition leader Don Polye.

Papua New Guinea opposition leader Don Polye. Photo: Supplied

The fighting in and around Wabag flared last month during the troubled vote counting process for Kandep Open. Although Kandep itself is a separate electorate, the vote counting and elimination stages for this open seat were held in the provincial capital.

Trouble was on the cards when supporters of the main Kandep candidates set up camp in Wabag as the lengthy vote counting process started. The count became bogged down in a dispute about exclusion of ballot boxes from Mr Polye's stronghold areas.

Bouts of fighting broke out between Mr Polye's supporters and those of his rival, Alfred Manase, who was declared winner of the Kandep election earlier this month. In the midsts of the earlier exchanges, two police officers were killed.

Following the death of the two officers, Mr Manase admitted his supporters were armed, indicating that such measures were required since violence had become common in Kandep elections.

Speaking on Mondya, the police commander had hopes that ongoing talks with tribal leaders would prove instrumental in convincing tribesmen to pull back from the violence. While Mr Kakas suggested he had the overall backing of the Kii tribe leadership for an end to fighting, it was a only faction of a particular Kii subclan that was involved with the fighting. This faction has revenge on its mind and it would take concerted diplomacy to change their mindset.

Flee to Mendi

Wabag remains in lockdown, and a number of residents have fled. One of them is Regina Lau, who was an independent candidate for the troubled Kandep seat.

"At the moment I'm not in Wabag. I'm in Mendi. I fled away from Wabag. Today it's very dangerous," she said.

"A person like me, I'm working along (as a candidate), I'm only one lady out of all the men. They would want to kill me as well so I flee away. I flee away, I'm in Mendi right now."

Mendi town on Saturday. Businesses were closed as the declaration of results stirred a violent reaction from some groups.

Mendi town where businesses have been closed as the protracted vote count for the Southern Highlands regional results stirred violence. Photo: Supplied

But the situation is tense in Mendi too. The Southern Highlands capital was also the centre of deadly fighting, between supporters of rival candidates for the regional seat, which left five people dead just over a week ago.

With a result in that electorate still pending, there remain fears of more deaths to come.

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