More than 20 people including pregnant women and children have been killed in recent tribal violence in Papua New Guinea, media reported on Wednesday.
The governor of the remote highland province of Hela told Australian Broadcasting Corp. the latest violence was on Monday when 16 people including women and children died at the village of Karida. The killings were probably retaliation for an earlier attack that left around seven dead, Gov. Philip Undialu said.
“This has escalated into the massacre of innocent women and kids,” Undialu said.
The Post-Courier newspaper, based in the South Pacific island nation’s capital Port Moresby, reported as many as 24 people were killed in the villages of Karida and Peta since Saturday.
Six people had been ambushed and killed near Peta on Saturday, Hela Police Chief Inspector Teddy Augwi told the newspaper.
The victims’ relatives retaliated with rifles the next day, killing between 16 and 18 people at Karida, including pregnant women, he said.
“This is not a tribal fight where the opposing villagers face each other on field,” Augwi told the newspaper. “This is a fight in guerrilla warfare, meaning they play hide-and-seek and ambush their enemies.”
Many villagers had fled the violence, Hela Administrator William Bando told the newspaper.
It was not immediately clear if any suspects had been arrested. Papua New Guinea Police spokesman Superintendent Dominic Kakas did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Tribal violence is common in Papua New Guinea’s interior, where villagers avenge relatives in retaliation known as payback.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape responded to the tragedies by saying on social media: “Today is one of the saddest days of my life.”
Marape said many of the victims lived in his electorate. The prime minister blamed a police shortage in Hela for the lawlessness.
“How can a province of 400,000 people function with policing law and order with under 60 policemen, and occasional operational military and police that does no more then (sic) band aid maintenance?” Marape wrote.
“In memory of the innocent who continue to die at the hands of gun toting criminals, your time is up,” he said.
“To all who have guns and kill and hide behind the mask of community, learn from what I will do to criminals who killed innocent people, I am not afraid to use strongest measures in law on you,” he added, referring to the death penalty.