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Killing connected to tribal conflict

Tuesday 28 June 2016 | Published in Regional

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PAPUA NEW GUINEA – An uneasy calm prevails around the University of Technology in the Papua New Guinea city of Lae after a student was killed there on Saturday night.

Officials say the attack was related to local tribal conflict.

A mob armed with bush knives attacked a first-year student sleeping in a dormitory in an apparent targeted attack before setting fire to various buildings on campus.

A Lae-based journalist for EMTV News, Scott Waide, said that police were outnumbered when they arrived on the scene.

“Police tried as much as possible not to fire live rounds. So they used teargas instead to disperse the crowd. It was pitch black. The power had been off for a few minutes when the attack began and it was raining very heavily so visibility for police was quite difficult.”

The university’s vice chancellor, Dr Albert Schram, said it was still unclear what motivated the attack, although it was possible it could be related to lingering tensions at the campus.

“What seems possible is that this is some sort of revenge for the student who was wounded on June 13 in a short brawl here on campus,” he said.

That brawl had exposed differences among students about whether to continue boycotting classes as they, alongside students from the University of Goroka and University of PNG, have done since May in their demand for the Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to step aside to face fraud allegations.

In contrast to the lack of trust between the University of PNG and its students in the capital, Port Moresby, Dr Schram said the Unitech administration had maintained constructive dialogue with the students since the boycott started.

“All the issues had nothing to do with the university council or the management,” he said. “They were all outside issues, and there is only so much we can influence, in that sense.

“But of course we are very sorry that it came to this point where a life was lost and the university buildings were destroyed.”

Dr Schram said the campus was in a state of tense calm on Monday morning.

“We’re still in shock because nobody saw this coming. There’s no way it could have been prevented. And of course the wanton destruction of university buildings and of course the mess has obliged us to ask the students to leave the campus because we can’t feed them any longer,” said Dr Schram.

He indicated that three weeks time would be the earliest he would expect the semester to resume, and that this was dependent on whether promised government support materialised.

It’s understood a government delegation was due in Lae on yesterday to assess the situation.

Dr Schram said he would convene another academic board meeting this week to look at how to salvage the academic year.

The governor of Oro Province, Gary Juffa, said parliament should be recalled as it was clear tensions were rising in the country, and the government needed to show leadership.

“Parliament – which was abruptly adjourned – should be recalled. And all of us need to work together to find a peaceful solution, and if it means the prime minister has to step down and appoint someone to be a caretaker while he attends to this matter, then that should be the case,” said Juffa.

In a statement on Sunday, O’Neill gave no indication of any intention to stand aside, but he did say his cabinet would meet this week to discuss ways to ease tensions at the country’s universities.

He said students must not become political footballs and outsiders should not interfere in student affairs.

Juffa said there was a risk of tribal enmities spilling over from the unrest at PNG’s universities, and he was helping to withdraw all Oro students from them in consideration of their welfare.

“When ethnic tension rises – and there is currently ethnic tension between two ethnic groups – the spillover effects, they become victims of that and they don’t wish to be in that situation,” Juffa said.

“You know because he (the victim) is from a family, he’s from a clan, he’s from a tribe. They’re grieving, they’re weeping, they want justice.”

Juffa said police needed to have the perpetrators of violence swiftly brought to justice, and that leaders needed to move to broker peace between conflicting tribes.

- RNZI/PNC