Gunbattle of warring tribes kills at least 26

CORRECTS TO DELETE THE DEATH TOLL AS THE NUMBER HAS LOWERED AFTER MORE REPORT - FILE - Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2022, at U.N. headquarters. Multiple people were massacred in a major escalation of tribal violence in Papua New Guinea, Australian media reported Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. Tribal violence in the Enga region has intensified since elections in 2022 that maintained Prime Minister James Marape's administration. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File)
CORRECTS TO DELETE THE DEATH TOLL AS THE NUMBER HAS LOWERED AFTER MORE REPORT - FILE - Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2022, at U.N. headquarters. Multiple people were massacred in a major escalation of tribal violence in Papua New Guinea, Australian media reported Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. Tribal violence in the Enga region has intensified since elections in 2022 that maintained Prime Minister James Marape's administration. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File)

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 Prime Minister James Marape said he had "great concern" about the violence in Enga and urged the warring tribes to lay down their weapons.

"If there are community disputes, there are ways to deal with the community disputes," Marape said.

"Lay down your arms. A lot of disputes will be resolved. One killing or two killings doesn't solve the problem. It contributes toward more problems," he added.

John Luther, a leader of Akom village whose warriors were among those ambushed, talked down the prospect of an escalation of the violence in retaliation for the deaths.

"We've lost a lot of lives. I don't feel we should be able to retaliate. We're already weak in numbers," Luther told The Associated Press.

"I don't think I would allow my people to go fighting again," Luther added.

The villagers were ambushed from a school building while on a mission to avenge the death of a woman killed in a neighboring allied village, he said.

Luther also accused the military of aiding and arming his enemies in the ambush. He had been told the death toll was 44.

But Papua New Guinea government lawyer Oliver Nobetau said he expects more lives will be lost in retaliatory violence.

"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.

He said although tribal violence is common, it has never happened on this scale and that police have limited resources to cope.

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.

Tribal violence in the Enga region has intensified since elections in 2022 that maintained 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 break out.

"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.

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