Papua New Guinea massacre: fears violence could spiral over tribal conflict

<span>At least 54 people were killed in an ambush between tribes in Papua New Guinea in the remote Akom village in Enga province on Sunday.</span><span>Photograph: Betsy Joles/Getty Images</span>
At least 54 people were killed in an ambush between tribes in Papua New Guinea in the remote Akom village in Enga province on Sunday.Photograph: Betsy Joles/Getty Images

Authorities in Papua New Guinea are bracing for an escalation of violence after dozens of men were killed in a tribal massacre on Sunday.

In the wake of the killings, the prime minister, James Marape, is facing calls to declare a state of emergency to address the ongoing fighting.

At least 54 people were killed in an ambush between tribes in the remote Akom village in Enga province on Sunday, the police mobile squad and Papua New Guinea defence force said. Authorities have revised estimates for the total number of deaths several times in the days since the tragedy.

The bodies were recovered by locals and police officers, and graphic images circulated showing corpses piled up on a truck. Police and security officials in Enga said the incident marks the worst massacre in months.

Related: Dozens killed in outbreak of tribal violence in Papua New Guinea highlands

“Some dead bodies are still in the bushes, and some are yet to be retrieved,” security personnel in Enga said on Tuesday.

Marape said the massacre was an act of “domestic terrorism”. Marape said the national executive council will meet this week to determine what measures will be taken to address the situation, which may include declaring a state of emergency for the region.

He said Papua New Guinea would also seek “help from Australia to support our police, at the administration level, to lead and to guide, whilst our local police will be deployed to the frontlines with the support of soldiers”.

Marape said legislation would be introduced to “strengthen the law enforcement capacity of security forces to intervene to acts of domestic terrorism, and that will also protect our police and defence personnel.”

Police commissioner David Manning said security forces have begun “targeted operations” in Enga to restore law and order. He said security officers had been told to “use any level of force required to prevent further violence and payback. This includes the use of up to deadly force.

“With the increased number of illegal firearms, tougher measures are also required to bring in domestic terrorists, including firearms smugglers, and those who fund firearms and ammunitions, to justice,” Manning said in a statement.

While tribal fighting is not unusual in parts of Papua New Guinea, violence has escalated in Enga over the past year. A member of parliament from Enga, Miki Kaeok, has called on the national government to declare a state of emergency in the province.

Kaeok said he is concerned about the increasing sophistication of tribal fighting in his electorate that is now spreading into nearby regions. He said tribal violence has advanced into a guerilla-type of warfare – largely due to the influx of weapons – with parties from across the province directly involved.

“The ongoing tribal fighting in my district has spilled over into [neighbouring] Wabag district with gunmen from all parts of the province taking part. We cannot allow this to continue,” Kaeok said.

Kaeok said hired gunmen from other parts of the province were being engaged to take part in fighting, which he said was supported by “leaders and educated elites” from warring factions. He called on the police commissioner to investigate those involved in supplying arms and ammunition.

“Hundreds of lives have been lost. Properties worth millions of kina have been ransacked and destroyed. I don’t want this to continue. It must stop now,” he said.

Rebecca Kuku is a reporter with the National, based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.