Papua New Guinea police open fire on protesting students, 23 injured

PORT MORESBY:Police in Papua New Guinea opened fire on Wednesday on students protesting against the Prime Minister, with 23 injured — five of them critically — in a clash which authorities blamed on “political agitators.”

Burning leaves are pictured on a road during clashes between protesters and police, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on Wednesday.

Students have been locked in a month-long standoff with authorities and have been boycotting classes as they demand Prime Minister Peter O’Neill step aside over corruption allegations.

No trust vote

Witnesses said the clashes broke out in capital Port Moresby as students prepared to march from the University of Papua New Guinea to Parliament, where Mr. O’Neill was due to face a no-confidence vote.

Anti-corruption campaigner Noel Anjo Kolao, who helped organise the protest, said police had set up roadblocks and pointed their guns at students.

“Then they started shooting at them,” he told AFP by phone, saying he saw several injured students.

One law for PM, one for citizens

“We have two sets of laws in Papua New Guinea, one for the Prime Minister and one for ordinary citizens.”

Police Commissioner Gari Baki said in a statement that 23 people were hurt. Five of them were critically injured, according to the Port Moresby General Hospital and the Gerehu St John’s Hospital.

Reports in Australian media that four people had been killed were denied.

‘Students pelted police with stones’

Mr. Baki said that when police told the students their march was illegal, they were pelted with stones before shots were fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

He added that as news circulated on social media, a large crowd armed with machetes, bows and arrows and home-made guns attempted to burn down a police barracks but were thwarted.

“Police in the city and around the country will come down hard on any opportunists who want to cause trouble,” he said.

Here, crime and lawlessness is rife

Crime and lawlessness in the sprawling and poor Pacific nation, where many still live traditional subsistence lives in remote areas, is rampant. Cases of sorcery and cannibalism have both been reported in recent years.

Mr. O’Neill has for two years been wanted for questioning by anti-corruption police but has refused to comply with a warrant for his arrest.

Illegal payments?

Police are investigating whether he authorized millions of dollars in illegal payments from the government to Paraka Lawyers, one of the Pacific nation’s largest law firms.

When the arrest warrant was issued in 2014, Mr. O’Neill sacked the PNG Police Commissioner, fired his Attorney-General and suspended numerous other Justice Department and police officials.

He also moved to disband the anti-corruption watchdog.

He says ‘politically-motivated’

Mr. O’Neill has denied the graft allegations, and last month published a lengthy letter responding to the students’ concerns which suggested the accusations were politically-motivated.