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PNG premier calls for Australian Federal Police intervention to quell gun violence ‘crisis’ threatening LNG operations

PHOTO: Tribal fighting is a persistent problem in Hela province. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

PHOTO: Tribal fighting is a persistent problem in Hela province. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

ABC Radio | 2 March 2017

The premier of Papua New Guinea’s Hela province is calling for an Australian Federal Police intervention to quell an outbreak of lawlessness he says has reached crisis point.

Key points:

  • Premier says province is awash with arms, including high-powered weapons
  • Describes situation as crisis with resource-rich province on the brink of failure
  • Says external help is essential, claiming some police are smuggling weapons for warlords

Premier Francis Potape said an escalating wave of armed violence exacerbated by some police officers was threatening critical liquefied natural gas and oil resources.

“Police in Hela province are good but there are also a few individuals who are rogue police and they assisted war lords to bring in weapons from the neighbouring highland provinces. And also, also they have supplied bullets to warring tribes,” he said.

“This accumulation of weapons came to a stage where it is, that part of the province, of the country, is coming to a failed, crisis situation and we need someone from the outside.”

Police were refusing to act on arrest warrants against scores of suspects and high-powered weapons were amongst those smuggled into the country, he added.

Tribal fighting in the province is a persistent problem in Hela province but flared up dramatically last year.

In response, a joint PNG police and military intervention was launched to gather as many illegal weapons from local people as possible, reportedly with mixed results.

Exxon-Mobil’s PNG LNG project in Hela — the country’s largest resources venture — has been repeatedly disrupted by incursions and blockades from disgruntled landowners, who complain they have not duped on promised royalties.

Mr Potape did not say if he had run his rather extraordinary request past PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

Australian Federal Police representatives could not be reached for comment.

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Police say LNG protests illegal

PNG police have no respect for people's right to protest

Exxon-Mobil says it respects people’s right to protest – unlike PNG police who love to label any attempt at free speech as “illegal”

Freddy Mou | Loop PNG | February 20, 2017

Provincial Police Commander for Central Province, Superintendent, Laimo Asi has condemned the protest by landowners of portion 152 at the PNG LNG plant site today.

Asi said there is no approval given by authorities to stage the protest.

The PPC, who was at the site this morning told Loop PNG that he had warned landowners not to cause any damage to the plant site but to allow the operation to continue as normal.

He had advised them that the protest was illegal and while the landowners have been reluctant to back off, they promised to do it peacefully.

Asi said his men are on the ground to protect facilities and to ensure the protest does not turn rowdy.

As of the writing of this report, landowners have not taken any action except the sit in protest with placards under the heat of the sun.

The villagers are from Boera, Porebada, Rearea and Papa.

They claimed that the government hasn’t paid their royalties since the first shipment of the LNG in May 2014.

They are demanding the government to look into this and provide answers to their demands.

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LNG army call-out unsuccessful

Photo: AFP

Post Courier | February 16,2017

THE CALL-OUT operation in Hela Province has not been successful because high powered firearms have not yet been surrendered since the operation started two months ago.

This has forced the Hela provincial government to look at ways to introduce a provincial executive council decision to have a buy-back gun program.

Hela Governor Francis Potape said that more than a month has passed but the gun surrender was not happening in Hela, adding that only homemade guns had been surrendered.

Commenting on the issue, Police Commissioner Gari Baki said while he is unable to give the number of weapons returned, police would be moving in to confiscate weapons from known owners, when the moratorium expired.

“We have intelligence reports on all people in possession of firearms that have not surrendered.”

“We will go directly to them, if they still have weapons within the vicinity of their areas, we will arrest them, whether they are leaders or ordinary people, that’s the arrangement we are taking now.”

Commissioner Baki added that he did not think that the rate of factory made weapons returned was a success and that was why the police needed to take a different approach.

The moratorium should be an ideal environment to have all factory made weapons returned”, he said.

Meanwhile, PNG Defence Force Lieutenant-Colonel John Manuai confirmed that they were not able to do their work effectively when funding was not coming on time to assist them with logistics as required by soldiers and police in such operations, besides allowances.

“Allowance is just one aspect but the operational requirement is another thing that will make our work effective to achieve results,” he said.

Lt-Col Manuai who flew to Port Moresby yesterday said that he would follow up on the issues including timely release of funds and the requirements for the operations when he meets with the Chief Secretary.

He said it would be better if the funds are released for the police or the defence force to control.

Meanwhile attempts to contact the Prime Minister’s department, Mr Lupari and Director National Security Advisory Council coordinator Tony Kaip have been unsuccessful.

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Government allocates additional K2m for Hela LNG Operation

Police and soldiers in Papua New Guinea wait to board a flight to the Hela Province highlands. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

Police and soldiers wait to board a flight to Hela Province  (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

NBC | One Papua New Guinea | 4 February 2017

The National Government has allocated another K2 million for the special law and order call-out operations in Hela province.

Governor, Francis Potape, revealed to NBC News that the K2 million adds to an initial K11 million allocation for the operation.

Mr. Potape says, the additional funding is to cater for local police who were overlooked in the initial funding.

“The callout operations is going good so far.

“We had 200 manpower, 150 are policemen and 40 or 50 soldiers.

“So bulk of the security forces are in Tari but we have a team in Koroba and also in Komo and Magarima.

“We had 3 gun surrenders. Some highpowered guns have been returned. Those are not the guns that we are expecting. We want more guns to come out. We wanted it to be faster but its bit slow.

“So the provincial government in consultation with the security forces we’ve set a deadline for each LLG’s, and all the guns and all the warlords from the LLG’s must surrender your weapons on that day. And it will start on the 13th.13th of February in Hulia and 14th for South Koroba and 15 so we have 13 LLG’s so everything starts on the 13th”.

Weapons surrendered during the call out will be destroyed on the 27th February while the first phase of the call out is expected to end on the 28th.

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PNG military warns of round-up if amnesty not heeded in LNG Province

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Radio New Zealand | 1 February 2017

A senior military official in Papua New Guinea has urged warring tribes to surrender their firearms or face the law at the end of the month.

PNG’s The National reports Lt Col John Manuai was speaking during the surrender of weapons by a tribe in Hela province at the weekend.

An amnesty is in place in the province for illegal firearms after months of tribal fighting and a build-up of high-powered weapons.

The defence force Joint Task Force Commander said the military would round people up on 28 February if they were still holding onto weapons.

On Saturday, a leader from Kikita Number Two village, Buka Minape, surrendered his high-powered weapons in the presence of police and defence force personnel.

The National reported he then called on his rival John Tipa to bring forward his group’s weapons.

The two groups had been fighting for four years over a $US3 million payment for the Tari Airport.

A similar ceremony took place on Friday at North Koroba where the Pumayu tribe handed in their weapons.

The weapons included a factory-made pump action gun and two homemade guns.

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Illegal firearms at Exxon-Mobil LNG a concern

Police and soldiers in Papua New Guinea wait to board a flight to the Hela Province highlands. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

Police and soldiers wait to board a flight to the Hela Province highlands. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

Ramcy Wama | Post Courier | January 24, 2017

THE building up of illegal firearms at the Exxon-Mobil LNG project sites in Hela Province is alarming and leaders have raised concerns that it might affect the LNG project.

Hela Governor, Francis Potape when welcoming the police and PNGDF soldiers said there are alot of illegal firearms that are building up at the projects sites and security forces, leaders and the people have to work together to curb the building up of illegal weapons at the project sites and the whole of Hela Province.

He said the amount of illegal firearms at the projects sites is alarming and can affect the LNG project.

“The amount of firearms at the LNG project sites is alarming and has the potential to affect the PNG LNG Project in Hela,” Mr Potape said.

He said the ‘call-out’ in the province is very important and urged leaders not to politicise the whole operations but let the security forces carry out what they are assigned to do.

“We don’t want the call out to be involved with the politics of Hela leaders and politicians in the province. The outcome of the security operation must be police and soldiers driven and not politics,” Mr Potape said.

He said the people of Hela want the operation to be successful and the end result must be positive.

“We don’t want a third call out in the province. If this operation fails, I don’t think the third operation would work out for the province.” Mr Potape said.

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LNG security callout: a holiday for Hela’s warlords?

Hela Province Tribesmen Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Hela Province Tribesmen Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Johnny Blades | Radio New Zealand | 23 January 2017

Late last month, 300 police and military personnel were deployed to Hela, which is home to the lucrative LNG gas project, after months of tribal fighting and a build-up of high-powered firearms.

There are warnings that a major security forces callout to Papua New Guinea’s Hela province will not provide a long-term solution to ongoing tribal fighting.

Dozens of people are understood to have died last year in fighting and lawlessness which has been particularly bad around Hela’s capital Tari.

Since the callout, police have been on a province-wide drive to collect illegal firearms in Hela, with an amnesty is in place for tribes to surrender their guns by the end of February.

The proliferation of high-powered guns in the region is not a new concern, but remains a concern for the operations of the ExxonMobil-led LNG project.

Deputy governor of Hela Thomas Potabe said that since the callout, fighting had largely cooled off.

“Now the province is quiet and we have almost 300 police and soldiers on the ground, so I don’t think we will get big fighting like before we did,” he said.

However there’s scepticism from NGO worker James Komengi, who has worked with facilitating mediation between warring tribes since 2008.

He said merely taking some guns out of the equation would not help in the long term because tribal fighting was entrenched in Hela as a result of the lack of public services and development.

The Highlands’ warring tribes have a source of illicit firearms trade which they can tap, along the border with Indonesia – both via Indonesian military and West Papuan tribes.

In Mr Komengi’s view, warlords could easily seek more weapons if they felt exposed.

“We are giving a holiday to the warlords,” Mr Komengi said of the current callout.

“It looks like it’s only a callout for the arms, and they don’t have any programmes that will be left behind to help us transform the communities. And that’s something I think the politicians will seriously have to get into to transform the province. Otherwise it’s more like a temporary break for the warlords.”

Leadership

For others, addressing the lawlessness and fighting is a question of leadership.

A Hela community leader, George Tagobe, said local police had the resources to deal with fighting before a callout was needed, but that direction was lacking.

“Our leaders, when they are in there, when they show their presence in the area where the fighting is, people respect. When there’s no leaders, people run around like animals,” was Mr Tagobe’s summary.

“Now the local police, they can be able to perform, but they’re waiting for orders to come. They can’t just go in and conduct raids and go into the fighting zone without any orders from the hierarchy,” he said.

Police operations commander, Assistant Commissioner David Manning, said Hela people had lost confidence in the region’s governance, and that needed to be restored in order to end lawlessness.

Tribal divisions are entrenched in Hela Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Tribal divisions are entrenched in Hela Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

“Over the years the thinking of the people of Hela has been that the national government has abandoned them, has really not given much focus on addressing some of the socio-economic challenges that the people face up here,” he said.

“As such, there was a building resentment towards the government [at] the national, provincial and district level.”

Part of the resentment that exists in Hela stems from the perception among of communities in the LNG Project area that promised benefits from this massive commercial venture have not materialised.

While their grievances have tended to be with government rather than developer, landowners mounted various protests last year, demanding outstanding project payments, and greater share of equity in the project.

Both police and local authorities deny that the tribal fighting is directly related to the LNG project, yet the project’s footprint, and expectations surrounding it, remain important and potentially epxlosive in Hela.

Mr Manning said that ending the fighting was a huge task that wouldn’t be completed quickly.

“The success of this operation hangs all over the shoulders of the people of Hela and how we – the operations – can engage in effective and productive partnerships with them in resolving the future of the province.”

Hela provincial government officials said the security forces callout had sparked constructive peace talks between warring tribes, and they were hopeful of a lasting settlement.

As PNG’s five-yearly general elections are due in mid-2017, it’s likely the government will maintain a boosted security forces presence in Hela.

With unrest around polling having hampered previous elections in parts of the Highlands, prime minister Peter O’Neill has indicated that security around the upcoming elections will be a priority.

However, people in Hela are concerned that settlement of tribal fighting may collapse after the polls.

A school burnt out as a result of tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea's Hela province. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

A school burnt out as a result of tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea’s Hela province. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Dialogue and understanding

James Komengi has been involved with the Ambassadors for Peace programme which was instrumental in the signing of a peace agreement between 32 warring communities in Hela region in 2008.

He said that since then none of the communities had resorted to violence.

Mr Komengi said the programmes which civil society facilitated have brought warring tribes together at workshops to develop the skills to dialogue and understand each other as well as the causes of conflict.

These workshops and dialogues were generally mediated by trained local facilitators like him.

He said that peace agreements between previously warring communities or tribes were based on their own agreements, publicly declared, and monitored by facilitators.

These were the types of programmes he said were needed to cope with Hela’s current wave of conflicts.

Drought a factor

Adding to the sense of despair and frustration among people in Hela, and other parts of the Highlands, is the hobbled government response to the recent drought.

Farmers and crop gardeners in many parts are still recovering from devastation caused by the El Nino-induced drought from 2015 to 2016.

A dry creek bed during the drought. Photo: Supplied

A dry creek bed during the drought. Photo: Supplied

Mr Komengi said that in response to the drought there was little effective help from provincial or central government.

According to him, government relief supplies or funds were often misused or misdirected.

Now, the National Agriculture Research Institute is partnering with civil society in the Highlands to help build resilience to future droughts.

Mr Komengi said that NARI has chosen the United Church to work with in Hela because it led the drought impact assessment and response programmes.

The notion of not waiting around for government to help, but instead of getting on with a community-driven response, has gained currency in PNG’s Highlands.

But taking matters into one’s own hands, particularly where justice is concerned, is also at the heart of the tribal fighting problem.

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