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NEWS CUTTINGS - THE SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS (A wild, wild Province)

 

Mendi Mayhem:


CITY POLICE TO PROBE MENDI FIRE (Post-Courier 9/12/02)

POLICE in Mendi are still unable to pin down the reason for the blaze that wiped out government offices last week. Worried townspeople speculated about possible causes, but police were reluctant to comment at the weekend. Meanwhile Port Moresby police Inspector Peter Ginis headed to the Highlands at the weekend to take charge of a team of detectives from nearby Mount Hagen to probe the fire. Three people taken in for questioning earlier in the week were released after questioning at the weekend.. Fire raced through three government buildings in Mendi early on Wednesday, destroying 14 government offices. They were only a short distance from the multi-storey Agiru Centre, the major government building in the town. Southern Highlander Ivan Komoko, who is involved in tourism promotion, said that “burning down buildings’’ was normal in the province. He said the people wanted Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and Inter-government relations Minister Sir Peter Barter to go to the province to “explain their plans’’

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LAWLESS SHP IN GRIP OF GUN TERROR by John Dau (The National 2/9/02)

(Heavily-armed youths brandish their weapons during the gathering at the Nipa field on Saturday. Nationalpic by John Dau)

A STATE of anarchy prevails in both urban and rural areas in the oil-rich Southern Highlands province, with vigilante groups imposing their own brand of law and order. Young men and other civilians move around the districts such as Nipa, Tari and Mendi with a variety of weapons including highly sophisticated guns capable of being mounted in combat. During a visit by media representatives to Mendi and Nipa over the weekend, there was no sign of police or military presence. A variety of goods including rice and tinned fish were being sold openly at high prices on the streets and at market locations. The Mendi-Tari road is impassable as many of the bridges have been blown up, schools are closed and the public service has ceased to operate. People are living in fear, desperately hoping that normalcy and peace will return to the province. Locals have expressed disappointment over the Government's lack of attention in addressing the leadership crisis, which has been blamed for all the suffering being endured by the people. They say they are prepared to take Papua New Guinea down with them if the State does not respond to their plight by September 14. From Mendi, the media group was flown to Nipa by helicopter to meet with 17 councillors from 31 council wards from the Huli area, and the local people who openly expressed their disappointment with the state of affairs, at the meeting at the Nipa field. The media group was met on arrival by armed youths who escorted the newsmen to meet the rest of the people who were aware of their visit. A camouflaged Toyota Land Cruiser, which had a powerful gun mounted on its roof, sped towards the group firing shots into the air and the other youths replied with their guns in a show of support. The acting president of Ulia-Benaria Local Level Government, Andagia Tobani, said that all their problems stemmed from the 2002 National Elections. Mr Tobani said that leaders were finding it hard to control the youths who are angry that six seats of the seats have not been declared while the other three have been declared. He said: "We want the Government to finish counting the remaining boxes from the six seats or declare the winners and let the court decide." He said that a supplementary election would mean more bloodshed and massive destruction. He said that the Electoral Commissioner was responsible for the problems now affecting the people. Mr Tobani said that the Government has to ensure they have a representation in Parliament before the budget session in November. "We are living in fear because we can't control the youths anymore, please tell the Government to do something quickly," he said. The visit to the areas was arranged by the Minister for Inter-Government Relations Sir Peter Barter.

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PHOTOGRAPHS - MENDI BURNING (20/12/01)

(click on images to enlarge)

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MENDI HAILS PEACE AGREEMENT by John Dau (Post-Courier 6/5/02)

PEACE has finally been restored in Mendi after the warring Unjamap and Wogia tribes signed a cease-fire agreement on Friday to permanently end a three-year-long war. The signing of the peace agreement was witnessed by a capacity crowd of more than 10,000 people who flocked to the Momei Oval. Men, women and children packed the oval to witness the historic occasion. Children displayed placards which read "We are the future, we need Mendi High School, we need Mendi Hospital, we need Mendi School of Nursing," and others such as "We want peace in SHP" and "Thank you for peace". Mothers held their heads in their hands and wept openly, remembering the suffering they had gone through with their children. The Urum tribe of Unjamap and the Tungujup tribe of Wogia, although not traditional enemies, were locked in a tribal war for the past three years, with both sides suffering great loss of life, injury, damage and destruction to property. The Mendi Peace Commission made up of chairman and businessman Francis Awesa, and Commissioners Catholic Bishop Stephen Reichert and Bishop Clarence Kapali of the United Church, initiated the agreement following five months of negotiations with the tribesmen. The leader of the Unjamap tribe, Stephen Mendepo, and Wogia leader John Ban, signed the agreement on behalf of their tribesmen after they finally agreed to make peace. Present to witness the signing were Defence Minister and Member for Lufa Mathias Karani, acting SHP Governor Wambi Nondi, Administrator Uhai Iabo, Highlands police divisional commander Alfred Reu, Secretary for Provincial and Local-level Government Affairs Leo Meninga, PPC John Mondiai, local leaders and students. None of the nine Members of Parliament from the Southern Highlands province attended the event. The signing was a continuation of a temporary cease-fire signed in Port Moresby on April 14 by the chief of both tribes, followed by a second one which signed at Kiburu Lodge in Mendi by young men from both tribes on April 24. Mr Awesa said the tribesmen must reconcile, forgive and forget by laying down their weapons and ammunition, since highly sophisticated weapons had been used to cause massive destruction. He said: "The tribal fight has created a bad name for the province but the good thing now is that they will be able to enjoy peace in the town." He said that leaders from both sides must ensure that their tribesmen were under control so that such fights do not occur in future. He urged them to surrender their weapons to their leaders so that they could rebuild their lives. The leaders of both tribes gave the assurance that they would uphold the agreement in the years to come. Mr Awesa and his committee also presented 11 recommendations in the agreement for the national and provincial governments, some of which include investigating the cause of the people's suffering, setting up a commission of inquiry into the SHP provincial government, appointment of a permanent judge, a total liquor ban in the province except for licensed hotels and clubs, and to immediately open the Mendi Hospital, the Mendi School of Nursing and Mendi High School. Mr Nondi has allocated K300,000 for the construction of a new police barracks at Tente, K60,000 for a doctor and K100,000 for the hospital.

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HIRED SORCERERS KILLED IN MENDI by Korugl-Kumugl (The National 27/2/02)

 

ONE of the warring groups in the tribal warfare in Mendi, Southern Highlands province, hired sorcerers to help win the war for them, police have said. However, their powers could not protect their own lives as the three sorcerers, one from Western Highlands and two from Chimbu, were killed in the fight. Chief of police operations in Mendi, Assistant Commissioner Jeffrey Vaki said the three people who were brought in to Mendi all got killed on the first day of fighting. "They were all shot as they tried to cross the (Mendi River) bridge. Their bodies were recovered," Mr Vaki said. He said that two women from Chimbu and a man from Western Highlands claimed to possess magical powers they would use to turn the tide of the fighting. "The belief in sorcery is strong in the Highlands. People who want to take advantage of this belief and commercialise it take great risks like those three. They are just so stupid," he said. Mr Vaki said any self-styled sorcerer thinking of "hiring out" his or her services to warring parties should think twice before venturing out on the enterprise. "A bullet from an SLR or M16 rifle does not know you are a sorcerer, when it hits your brain, you are history," Mr Vaki said. The National, on a recent trip to Mendi, was informed by eye witnesses of the fighting that a fourth man was brought in to Mendi and he was also killed on the first day of the fighting. The report said the East New Britain man and the three others were leading the fighting and were all killed on the bridge. Mr Vaki would not confirm the death of the Tolai man, however, he said deaths and destruction to property were substantial. He said the special operation in Mendi was aimed at bring stability back to the town in preparation for the national elections. He said police were optimistic that peace negotiations now underway would bring the warring groups together and peace would be established soon. Mr Vaki said there were minor skirmishes last Thursday and Friday but that ended when peace negotiator Francis Awesa appealed to the tribes to stop fighting again. "They have listened and have responded that they will respect Mr Awesa's appeal," Mr Vaki said. He said the peace committee and the police were working towards a peaceful settlement to the dispute. Another meeting is scheduled at which parties are expected to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to end their fighting.

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BABY AMONG THREE KIDS KILLED IN SHP TRIBAL WAR by Kevin Pamba (The National 14/2/02)

 

A SEVEN-MONTH-OLD baby boy is among three children brutally murdered by tribal warriors in front of their mother who was also severely hacked in the Tari area of the Southern Highlands province last week. Tari community leader, George Tagobe, said yesterday that the baby was split in half with a bush-knife while his seven-year-old brother was told to open his mouth and shot in the mouth at point blank range along with their other brother, whose age could not be ascertained. Mr Tagobe, who saw the injured mother at Tari District Hospital last week, said that she was in a critical condition and may be airlifted to the nearby Porgera gold mine hospital. He said that the mother and her three children are the latest victims of a protracted tribal fight between the Halongo and Pujero clans. He said the clans' 'war zone' covers the road between the Hides Gas field and Tari town, and is affecting road users including those travelling into the gas project. The report from Mr Tagobe could not be verified with the provincial police commander Mark Kanawi. But a policeman at Mendi police station said yesterday afternoon that they had heard of tribal fights in that part of the province, which is under a protracted telecommunication blackout except for the Hides gas project. Mr Tagobe said the tribal fight which has been continuing on and off since last year, has cost 21 lives but it has not received appropriate attention from the leaders and law enforcement agencies. He said besides the tribal fights in Tari-Pori, there were tribal fights ensuing in the Koroba-Lake Kopiago and Komo-Margarima electorates. Mr Tagobe said in Koroba-Lake Kopiago, the fighting was between the Tani and Pureni clans, where 12 men were killed since early last year. In the Margarima-Komo area, a protracted fight since mid-last year has claimed 11 lives. Mr Tagobe said two other fights were occurring in Tari between the Heparia and Haro clans (three killed) and Juma and Hambuali clans (two deaths at the weekend). He said while the western part of the Southern Highlands is under a communications blackout, the atrocities were going on without authorities and the media taking any noticing of them. Mr Tagobe said there is also a leadership vacuum in the area and he called on the three MPs, Alfred Kaiabe (Komo-Margarima), Tom Tomiape (Tari-Pori) and Herowa-Agiwa (Koroba-Kopiago) to intervene. He asked why people are being allowed to kill and destroy each other's property without leaders coming in to help. "Where are our leaders?" "They must come home and address these serious problems," Mr Tagobe said. He questioned how the annual 'slush fund' of K1.5 million for each MP was being and suggested that this money could be used to assist the local Police Mobile Squad 10 and peace and good order committee in the area to tackle the different tribal fights in the area.

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NEW TERROR GRIPS MENDI (Post-Courier 12/2/02)

 

A NEW wave of terror has been unleashed on innocent Mendi Town residents in Southern Highlands. Heavily armed tribesmen have been raiding and looting homes and committing violent sexual crimes against women as their terrified men watch helplessly under gunpoint. The crimes are being committed at any time — night and day. The new crime wave comes amid a still unresolved tribal conflict between the warring Tungsup and Unjumap tribes located within Mendi township and its immediate outskirts. The conflicting tribes called off their clashes a week ago to mediate a peaceful settlement under police supervision. But violence continues in another form in the troubled township. Four women were recently killed in actions that involved rape and battery. The latest horrible attack occurred on Saturday night when a woman was dragged from the family home and pack-raped while her husband and relatives watched helplessly nearby. A gang of young men armed with high-powered rifles are responsible for the latest spate of violent attacks. On Saturday night the gang entered a residential area and after threatening the menfolk by pointing their rifles at them menacingly demanded to know where their women were. They then broke into the rooms and grabbed the married woman and sexually assaulted her while keeping her husband and relatives in full view at gun point. The assailants took turns raping the woman then robbed the families of all their belongings before disappearing into the night. “It’s very frightening out here. Everyone saw or heard the woman crying and the commotion that took place but no one could do anything. The gun is now ruling Mendi,” said a very frightened town resident. “There is no safe area for women here in Mendi. The secure feeling all women have when their husbands and brothers are present has been stripped off by the barrel of gun. “Many women in the town now live behind locked doors and those who work go home as early as midday,” the resident said. Highlands police are closely monitoring the situation.

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MENDI FIGHT CONTINUES (Post-Courier 31/1/02)

The tribal fight in Mendi is continuing with unconfirmed news of more deaths and other criminal activities on the rise. Several houses were burnt down yesterday in what was described as one of the “fiercest battles” the waring tribes ever fought, using high powered rifles. Church sources in Mendi alleged that 10 people from the Unjumap and Tubiri tribes were killed yesterday by the Wogia tribe and Lai Valley tribes. Southern Highland Provincial Police Commander Mark Kanawi said police received reports of some deaths but could not confirm them. He said police would start counting the bodies as soon as there was a ceasefire among the waring tribes. Several houses were burnt down early yesterday morning. Over the weekend, a female student from the Mendi School of Nursing was packed raped by men allegedly from the waring Unjumap tribe. Chief Superintendent Mark Kanawi confirmed the incident. He said police have arrested three people, one on Monday and two yesterday in relation to the rape incident. Mr Kanawi also confirmed reports that two vehicles were taken by force by the Wogia and Lai Valley tribes. One of the vehicles belonging to the Bishop of the United Church was taken after church leaders from the province delivered food to the two waring tribes respectively last Thursday. A church worker on the condition of anonymity said: “People from the Wogia tribe forced the Bishop and several of his clergies who just delivered food to them (Wogia) out of the vehicle at gun point and took it. They probably want to disguise themselves in the Bishop’s vehicle and get their enemies.” On Tuesday, another vehicle owned by construction firm Carson Pratt Services was taken by the same group. Mr Kanawi said: “We have been trying to negotiate for the vehicles to be released. We got our guys as close to the battle zone as possible.” He added that the provincial headquarters, the Agiru Centre was empty of provincial administrative machinery. Mr Kanawi said the Mendi warfare needed the support of all leaders to stop it. Without any moral support from the leaders to try and stop this fight, many lives will be lost, he said. All road into the Southern Highlands capital is being blocked off by police to make sure people did not come in with ammunition and weapons.

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DARING ESCAPE BY AIR (Post-Courier 4/1/02)

SIXTEEN panic-stricken people seeking to put “safe distance” between themselves and machine gun bullets in Mendi town last Friday made a daring escape in a Mt Hagen-bound twin otter as it prepared to take off. The incident has earned the ire of the Civil Aviation Authority and an investigation is now underway. It has not been confirmed whether the aircraft was hijacked. A CAA eye witness in Mendi told the Post-Courier yesterday that 16 people from a large crowd escaping from gunfire from warring Mendi tribesmen scaled the airport perimeter fence and forced themselves into the taxing aircraft. He said the crowd had spilled onto the runway and it was a wonder that the aircraft found the room to actually take off. “It was like a movie scene. People were running in all directions. Many headed for the safety of the airport buildings,” the officer said. The officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said the 16 people just boarded the South West Airline twin otter which took off immediately for Mt Hagen. “It’s a very unusual situation. All the CAA rules were broken on this occasion,” he said. Other eye-witnesses said the situation was set off by warriors from the Tuburi and Unjumap tribes who held up a vehicle from the Works Department at gun point and used it to search for enemy tribesmen in and around the town. They said the people on the vehicle fired several rounds into the air from high powered rifles and machine guns to disperse the usual large Friday crowd that had gathered within the vicinity of Mendi airport. One eye witness said: “When automatic gunfire began the crowd just panicked and there was something like a stampede with people running in all directions at once. “They scaled the airport perimeter fence and ran onto the airport runway because there was no other way to escape. Several vehicles also drove onto the runway. “Two South West aircraft, a twin otter and a bendirentte were preparing to take off when the crowd spilled onto the runway. “That is when the 16 people boarded the twin otter which then took off immediately for Mt Hagen.” A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman in Port Moresby said yesterday the incident was being investigated. He said the situation in Mendi at present is regrettable with the ongoing tribal hostilities. “We hope peace will be brought to prevail there very soon, “ he said.

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MENDI CARNAGE - 13 MORE DIE, BISHOP DECRIES MAYHEM (Post-Courier 28/12/01)

THIRTEEN more people were killed in the tribal fight in Mendi, Southern Highlands over the weekend and Christmas period, the Catholic Church said yesterday.

The death toll was now a confirmed 36, but could be more. Tribes are not revealing the exact number of deaths in the two weeks of tribal warfare in the Southern Highlands capital. On Saturday, nine people were killed on both sides of the warring Unjumap and Wagia tribes. Two women from the Wagia tribe were shot dead and their bodies split in half by blows from bush knives and axes. The women, painted with ashes and dressed in banana leaves, were transporting food to combatants in the battlefield when they were surrounded and shot dead by enemy tribesmen.

The Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mendi Steven Reichert said it was difficult to determine the exact number of people killed so far. He said it was a new and fearful record in tribal fights in the Highlands region where a lot of lives had been lost within a very short period. Archbishop Reichert said: “There’s been a lot of loss of lives. This is exclusively a high powered gun battle. The death rate is faster and more devastating than any ordinary tribal fight with bows and arrows or home made and factory made shotguns. “It is very difficult to determine the number of deaths. At the minimum, there were 36 deaths so far. There are strong rumours that the deaths could be up to 56.” He said this could be true because nobody was going into the battle fields to count the deaths and that the warring tribes were hiding their deaths from the police, enemy tribes and outsiders.

Archbishop Reichert said people from other tribes who had high powered weapons and were experienced in gun battles, were being hired as mercenaries by both the Unjumap and Wagia tribes (Uncle Peter: this is now standard fare refer "tribal fighting, the new reality"). The Unjumap tribes have left their homes around the partly devastated Mendi High School and fled to the Tuberi hills in the north. Archbishop Reichert said there was no indication that the fight would stop because the battle was extending to more tribes in the Lai Valley and the number of deaths were increasing rapidly. There was no fighting on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but on Wednesday and yesterday spasmodic rifle fire was heard. The fighting was moving away into the mountains and the sounds of battle, unlike last week, could only be heard in the distance, he said.

Archbishop Reichert said national parliamentarians from the province, including the Mendi electorate, provincial and tribal leaders had not shown up or participated in any way to help stop the fight. “This is a very serious situation. Women and children are without food and homeless, many lives are lost, government services are being interrupted. The leaders should come out and look at ways to solve this problem,” Archbishop Reichert said. The clergyman reiterated the Papua New Guinea Catholic Bishops’ Conference stand on the build-up and illegal use of firearms in Mendi and the rest of the country. Archbishop Reichert said he was sure that over a hundred high powered rifles and other weapons were being used in the tribal fight in Mendi. He said the use of such lethal weapons getting near to the 2002 National Elections was a very big problem that needed to be addressed at all levels and very quickly. “We are praying that something will happen soon. The bishops conference have made a wake up call to the national government on the gun situation in the country. We wonder if our concern was taken heed of. Meanwhile, over 200 mobile squad members were sent into the area to monitor the situation last week. Highlands divisional commander Tony Wagambie said the situation was slowly getting under control.

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15 MORE KILLED IN FIERCE TRIBAL FIGHT (Post-Courier 20/12/01)

FIFTEEN more people have been confirmed killed on Tuesday in a fiery clash in the tribal fight between the Wogia and Unjamap villagers outside Mendi town. Southern Highlands provincial police commander Jeffery Kera said, the latest deaths mean a total of 23 lives lost in the fight that erupted on the weekend.

A policeman who returned from the scene of the battle said there could be more deaths as no confirmed figures could be obtained from both sides while the situation was still tense and explosive. The policemen said that sophisticated high powered rifles and arms like M16s, AR15s, SLRs, M60 machine guns, AK47s, M203 rifles with launchers and ammunition were being used in the fight.

On Monday buildings belonging to the Mendi Provincial High School were burnt down during the fight. These were a double dormitory building, two staff houses and the students mess hall. Police prevented further burning of other school buildings. A senior nursing officer at Mendi hospital, Sr Anna Wale said that there were no patients as they have fled in fear of their lives and the hospital was only dealing with very serious cases. Sr Wale said the presence of police mobile units led by Highlands divisional commander assistant commissioner Tony Wagambie at the hospital had given staff a feeling of protection. Residents of the Tente Newtown area have moved to safer sides of the town like Kumin, North Kagua, Waa and Longo with wantoks and friends. Town residents report seeing numerous burning of houses as well as hearing large explosions. Meanwhile Mr Kera said the provincial peace and good order committee had declared tribal fighting zones in the Mendi, Ialibu and Nipa/ Kutubu districts of the province effective as of yesterday.

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DEATH TOLL RISING IN MENDI FIGHTING by Korugl Kumugl (The National 19/12/01)

FOUTEEN bodies were reported to have been recovered from the Mendi river yesterday morning and many more people were still missing, according to latest reports on the ethnic clashes in Mendi, Southern Highlands province. Radio Southern Highlands and other reliable sources said the bodies were of people gunned down as warriors fled when fighting broke out at the Mendi High School. Police have yet to confirm the reports but unofficially, this would bring the total number of reported deaths in the clashes to 22. The total number of deaths from both Ujimap and Tugumap clans over a three-year period of fighting is 31. “Those killed yesterday were among those that ran towards Wara Mendi ... their bodies have been recovered and they are lined up on the Mendi High School road,” a source with NBC Mendi said. According to the reports, the Tugumaps moved into the Mendi High School after burning down Tende village and were setting fire to the buildings at the school. The reports said the Ujimaps, using the smoke from the burning buildings as cover, crept in and pounded them with automatic weapon fire, driving many of them into the Mendi river. The reports said police could not do much because the warriors were heavily armed. “The PPC (Chief Inspector Jeffery Kera) was threatened. The warriors tried to take his gun... but they are now trying to negotiate peace,” another source said. Mr Kera was understood to have referred all matters relating to the clashes to his commander, Assistant Commissioner Tony Wagambie who was in the field leading the operation. The reports said the warriors took three firearms belonging to the police on Tuesday. Many people have gone missing while families from both groups have fled their villages and were hiding with friends and relatives elsewhere in Mendi. Public servants and church workers contacted by this newspaper yesterday said their colleagues who lived at Tende have all moved out. “Some have moved their belongings, others haven’t. The local people have taken over their houses. “I have slept at my place of work and my family have moved out of Mendi,” a public servant said. The reports said fear has gripped the residents because the fighting has spilled into the town. A number of government vehicles were stolen and many were damaged in a rampage earlier in the week. The reports said the Mendi hospital has been closed and the patients have been transferred elsewhere. There are also threats that the hospital buildings could go up in flames at any time. Mendi residents said there were no leaders in the province to deal with the conflict.

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MENDI HIGH SCHOOL IS BURNED TO THE GROUND (Post-Courier 18/12/01)

SEVERAL buildings of the Mendi High School were burnt to the ground at midday yesterday as the fighting in Mendi between the Erep Urum and the Runjup tribes intensified. An eyewitness from Mendi said the main administration block, boys and girls dormitories and classrooms were burnt to the ground. “Staff houses have not been torched yet but these may be gone by tonight (last night),” the eyewitness said. Reports from Mendi yesterday also claimed that properties belonging to former MP for Imbonggu, Anthony Temo at Tente were also destroyed in the fight. Whether this destruction is related to the tribal fight is not clear. While talking on the phone, the Post-Courier could hear the war cries in the background through the phone. This tribal fight is between two former enemies who fought a furious battle in 1998-1999. On Saturday, the Runjup tribe sprung a surprise dawn attack on the Erep Urum.

Tente village fell first. This village is near the Mendi hospital. Unconfirmed reports from Mendi claimed that hospital staff fled along with some patients. The hospital is reported to be left with a skeleton staff but is not operating normally. Yesterday, the Runjup group claimed Unjimap village (near Mendi High School) and forced the Erep Urum people to flee up the Tubiri mountains to the west of Mendi. The Post-Courier could not get a confirmed number of deaths from any reliable source but from reports, it is understood that more than 10 people may have already died. Several more are suffering serious injuries and properties worth thousands of kina may have been lost already. Reports from Mendi have also confirmed that since the weekend, many of the families of people working in Mendi fled the town. The exodus may continue if the situation becomes worse. Business in town operated normally yesterday but one source said that if the lives of the staff and its operation came under threat, they may close shop. A caller from Mendi, who requested anonymity, yesterday asked all parliamentarians from the province to rush home and try to resolve the conflict. He also expressed concern for the safety of other public servants and people from other provinces serving in the township.

Meanwhile, Highlands divisional police commander Tony Wagambie left Mt Hagen yesterday with a mobile squad from Western Highlands enroute to Mendi to assess the situation. Mr Wagambie said he had alerted mobile squads in Kundiawa, Wabag and Goroka and they were on stand-by. The Southern Highlands police commander was not available for comments yesterday.

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EIGHT KILLED IN TRIBAL CLASH IN SHP by John Apami (The National 17/12/01)

EIGHT people are reported to have been killed and up to 50 houses burnt to ashes following running gun battles between two warring tribes in the Mendi area of Southern Highlands province at the weekend.

According to eyewitnesses yesterday, the fight was still raging between the Ujimap and Tugup tribes from the Upper and Lower Mendi areas. They said public servants are living in fear while those in the Newtown area have moved into Mendi for safety. Police reinforcements from Mount Hagen had not yet arrived and residents said they could hear high-powered weapons being used in the fight. According to reports, the fight is a continuation of the one that took place between the Ujimap and the Tugup tribes after a schoolboy was killed by a vehicle in 1999. The two tribes have not yet settled the dispute and according to reports, they were preparing for a peace agreement later this month when the trouble started on Saturday morning.

A resident told The National: "As we are talking (at 12.30pm yesterday), there is fierce fighting going on and I can see smoke from burning houses." The eyewitness said the whole of Tende village belonging to the Ujimap tribe was burnt to ashes in the early hours of yesterday. He said the Tugup people raided Tende village at about 3am and burnt the houses. According to the resident, eight people are dead and between 40 and 50 houses had been burnt.

A duty policeman contacted in Mendi yesterday said three people were killed during the fighting on Saturday, and another five yesterday. The policeman said high-powered and sophisticated weapons were being used, but denied that the conflict was connected with political tension in the province. "High-powered guns are being used by both sides. They are using guns like AR15s, SLRs, and M16s, and we (police) are powerless. All we are doing now is guarding government properties." The policeman said unless police reinforcements were rushed to Mendi, there was a real danger of the fight spilling into the township, which could result in untold damage to properties and businesses.

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