Looting, fires in Papua New Guinea's Port Moresby kills at least 10 people

By Scott Waide, Finau Fonua, and Kelvin Anthony for RNZ

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.

People have been ordered to leave the streets of the capital after Wednesday's violent riots, and have been warned authorities will use "live rounds".

Most major stores in Port Moresby were looted and torched.
Most major stores in Port Moresby were looted and torched. Photo credit: Andrew Kutan.

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.

National newspaper The Post-Courier labelled the events the "Darkest day in our city" and the 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.

"The cost of the ensuing looting and destruction is substantial, and my heart goes out to all the business in the city that have been affected," Parkop said according reports.

Rioting broke out as looters and opportunists took advantage of a protest by the country's police.
Rioting broke out as looters and opportunists took advantage of a protest by the country's police. Photo credit: Isaac Itsima.

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."

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.

Several buildings were set on fire.
Several buildings were set on fire. Photo credit: Supplied

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 to clear the streets and go home.

Last night, additional police from the Northern Mobile Group (NMG) were flown in from from Lae to help restore order.

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

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 of between US$26 and US$80 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.

Crowds of people in the capital Port Moresby on Wednesday.
Crowds of people in the capital Port Moresby on Wednesday. Photo credit: Andrew Kutan.

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 denigrated to a point where there's widespread looting.

The finance department and prime minister have tried to explain the so-called "glitch", saying it was being fixed, but that hasn't 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, have been flown into Port Moresby, and are expected to restore order.

The military has been called out to assist police.

Some calm can be expected today (Thursday) but it will be difficult to get the looters off the streets without any force.