At least 10 dead after looting, fires on Port Moresby’s ‘darkest day’

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Rioting breaks out in Port Moresby as looters take advantage of a protest by the Papua New Guinea's police
Rioting breaks out in Port Moresby as looters take advantage of a protest by the Papua New Guinea's police and military. Image: Isaac A Itsima/FB/RNZ

By Scott Waide, RNZ Pacific PNG correspondent; Finau Fonua, RNZ Pacific journalist; and Kelvin Anthony, RNZ Pacific lead digital and social media journalist

At least 10 people are dead and dozens injured after 24 hours of looting in Papua New Guinea, during which several buildings were torched.

Chaos broke out in Port Moresby as looters and opportunists took advantage of a protest by the country’s police and military.

People have been ordered to leave the streets of the capital after yesterday’s violent riots, and have been warned authorities will use “live rounds”.

Looting has spread to at least four other towns, including Kavieng, reports the PNG Post-Courier.

Footage and images circulating on social media show crowds of people leaving shops with looted goods — everything from merchandise to soft drinks to freezers — as the National Capital District (NCD) descended into chaos overnight.

How the PNG Post-Courier reported the looting 11 Jan 24
How the PNG Post-Courier reported today on the capital of Port Moresby’s “darkest day”. Image: PNG Post-Courier

The national daily newspaper PNG Post-Courier labelled the events the “Darkest day in our city” and NCD Governor Powes Parkop appealed to the looters to stop.

Port Moresby General Hospital say eight people have been killed, and another two have been confirmed dead by police central command in Lae, the country’s second biggest city.

‘My heart goes out’
“The cost of the ensuing looting and destruction is substantial, and my heart goes out to all the businesses in the city that have been affected,” Parkop said according reports.

People flee with merchandise as crowds leave shops with looted goods in Port Moresby.
People flee with merchandise as crowds leave shops with looted goods in Port Moresby. Image: Andrew Kutan/RNZ

Unverified videos have also emerged of bodies of several men allegedly shot dead who were involved in the unrest on Wednesday and children and women wailing around them in Port Moresby.

RNZ Pacific is trying to verify the footage.

Police and the PNG Defence Force reinforcements have been called from outside the capital to restore order.

Emergency service providers have been working overnight attending to high numbers of people injured in the violence at various locations.

“The ambulance service has received a large number of emergencies calls in the National Capital District relating to shooting incidents and persons injured in an explosion,” St. John Ambulance Service said on their Facebook page.

“The ambulance operations centre are prioritising high-priority emergencies only at this point.”

Stretched to limit
The Papua New Guinea Fire Service has had its resources stretched to its limits as it struggled to contain fires in multiple locations.

The Port Moresby General Hospital had to close overnight while a smaller hospital at the Gerehu suburb, evacuated its patients as a nearby shop was set on fire.

Large businesses suffered big losses in just a few hours.

The City Pharmacy Limited (CPL) group, which owns one of the biggest supermarket and pharmacy chains in Port Moresby, had most its shops raided and burned overnight.

Looters also stole electronic appliances from warehouses and shops owned by the Brian Bell group of companies.

Police Commissioner David Manning called on all people in Port Moresby that to clear the streets and go home.

Mobile squad called in
Last night, additional police from the Highlands Mobile Group (HMG) were flown in from from Lae to help restore order.

The government also issued a call out for the military to assist police.

Looting in Port Moresby
A protest over unexplained pay deductions to salaries of police, military and correctional services staff has triggered looting in Port Moresby. Image: RNZ

The events began on Wednesday morning local time, after about 200 police and the military personnel gathered at the Ungai Oval to protest over pay deductions from their wages.

They wanted answers from authorities about the “tax” in their most recent pay period, but a government minister who addressed them could not convince them why the deductions had been made.

The tax office said the issue caused by a “glitch” in the accounting system.

What triggered the chaos
In the last fortnight pay cycle, several service members saw a reduction in their pay, ranging from $100 PNG kina to $350 PNG kina (US$26-US$80).

It was not clear whether it was due to a tax, or a glitch in the system.

Many of them were told later, through a statement from the Internal Revenue Commission (IRC), and the prime minister’s office that there was a glitch in the payrolls system.

That triggered a gathering of about 200 policemen and women, military personnel and correctional services personnel in Port Moresby. They demanded an answer from the government, saying a “glitch” wasn’t a satisfactory answer.

They then moved from Unagi Oval to Parliament house, opened the gates of Parliament, and the Police Minister Peter Siamali Jr tried to address them. The security personnel then withdrew their services, and the city descended into chaos overnight.

Initially it was sporadic looting in various suburbs of Port Moresby. In the Gerehu suburb one shop was burned, and a few kilometres down to Waigani there was a shop that was burnt, and over the next three to four hours it became worse and several more shops were looted because there was no police presence there.

Policemen were there, but nothing could be done to the looters, so it has degenerated to a point where there is widespread looting.

The Finance Department and prime minister have tried to explain the so-called “glitch”, saying it was being fixed, but that has not gone down well with the service members.

The Northern Mobile Group, a mobile squad unit from out of Port Moresby which looks after one part of the region, has been flown into Port Moresby, and is expected to restore order.

The military has been called out to assist police.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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