26 die in tribal violence in Papua New Guinea

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.
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, 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 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.

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