A State of Emergency has been declared in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands Province. Last week, rioters burned a commercial airplane, the courthouse and the home of the provincial governor.
The violence was a by-product of last year’s much disputed elections, which saw widespread irregularities. Last Thursday, after a court upheld the election of Southern Highlands governor William Powi, angry supporters of defeated candidate Joseph Kobol flooded into Mendi, the provincial capital.
The local police commander said his men were outnumbered and outgunned and decided to retreat rather than start a firefight. Kobol’s supporters burned a Dash 8 regional airliner, and torched several buildings in town. They also looted a warehouse containing relief supplies for victims of February’s massive earthquake in the highlands. No injuries were reported.
Following the decision to impose the state of emergency, armed supporters of Governor Powi demanded restoration of the provincial government, and threatened the huge project that pipes natural gas from the highlands 300 miles to the national capital, Port Moresby.
Yesterday, at a news conference in Port Moresby, Joseph Kobol apologized for the actions of his supporters and pledged to support the rule of law.
An overnight curfew is in effect in Mendi, and troops and police reinforcements have arrived. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, whose seat is in the Southern Highlands, declared that the situation is returning to normal. But Mendi Police Commander Gideon Kauke told Johnny Blades of RNZ Pacific that the combination of deep seated political differences and high-powered firearms makes the situation highly charged and that he hadn’t made any arrests yet, for fear of provoking more violence.