Papua New Guinea vows crackdown after 15 killed in riots

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PORT MORSEBY: Papua New Guinea’s prime minister pledged on Thursday (Jan 11) to crack down on “lawlessness”, after 15 people died in riots across the country’s two largest cities.

Violence erupted in the capital Port Moresby on Wednesday evening after a group of soldiers, police officers and prison guards launched protests against the government.

Angry crowds torched buildings and ransacked shops during a night of turmoil that soon spread 300km north to the city of Lae.

By Thursday afternoon, police commissioner David Manning confirmed that at least 15 people had died in the country’s two largest cities.

Prime Minister James Marape on Thursday apologised to the country, saying the bursts of “lawlessness” would “not be tolerated”.

“I want to speak today, speak to the people and speak to the country,” he said at a press conference.

“This is your country as much as it’s my country. Breaking the law does not achieve certain outcomes.”

Marape said the worst of the riots had subsided by Thursday morning, but conceded “it’s still tense out there” in parts of Port Moresby.

Smoke billows from a building fire in Port Moresby after riots erupted that left 15 dead. (Photo: AFP/STR)

AFPTV footage showed looters in the capital dashing into stores through smashed glass windows, stuffing stolen goods into cardboard boxes, shopping trolleys and plastic buckets.

One man was seen lugging an entire chest freezer away on his shoulders.

Buildings and cars were set alight, AFPTV footage showed, stirring up thick plumes of black smoke that hung over the worst-hit parts of the city.

Earlier, a smaller crowd gathered outside the prime minister’s office in Port Moresby, tearing a security gate off its rails and torching a parked police car.

Beijing has lodged a complaint with Papua New Guinea’s government, following reports that rioters targeted Chinese-owned businesses.

Port Moresby resident Jerry Mathew, 30, said “many shops” had come under threat.

“Some parts of the city are safe, but other major centres are not,” he told AFP as the riots raged Wednesday evening.

This screengrab from AFPTV video footage taken on Jan 10, 2024 shows people carrying items as crowds leave shops with looted goods amid a state of unrest in Port Moresby. (Photo: AFP/STR)

“END THIS STRIFE”

National Capital District governor Powes Parkop said the unrest represented an “unprecedented level of strife” in Port Moresby, while local newspaper the Post Courier called it the city’s “darkest day”.

“What is most important is that we must end this strife,” Parkop told a local radio station Wednesday evening.

“Nobody will be a winner in this type of civil unrest.”

Security forces staged a protest inside Papua New Guinea’s parliament after noticing their pay had been docked without explanation.

Although the government swiftly promised to fix what it described as a payroll “glitch”, it was not enough to stop disgruntled civilians from joining the fray.

The burst of violence highlights the often volatile nature of life in Papua New Guinea, a country plagued by poverty and high levels of crime.

Perched less than 200km from Australia’s northernmost border, Papua New Guinea is the largest and most populous state in Melanesia.

Although it is blessed with vast deposits of gas, gold, and minerals, human rights groups estimate that almost 40 per cent of its nine million citizens still live below the poverty line.

Australia recently inked a security deal with Papua New Guinea, promising to help its stretched police force combat arms trafficking, drug smuggling and tribal violence.

“We continue to urge calm at this difficult time,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters on Thursday.