At least nine people have been reported as being injured as a result of police force in Papua New Guinea after student protesters had gunfire opened on them this week.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who was accused of corruption by protesters who are pushing for his resignation, placed the blame with “agitators responsible for instigating a violent confrontation.”
After coming into power in 2011, O’Neill has been the subject of allegations that he allowed millions of dollars in fraudulent payments to be given to a leading law firm.
According to witnesses, students had come together at the University of Port Moresby campus. The plan had been to protest at Parliament. However, that never happened because police blocked them from leaving, reports James Griffiths for CNN.
“Police started swearing at the students, insulting them (and then) fired shots at them,” said Noel Anjo, one of the leaders of the student protest. “I was lucky to escape … people ran for cover in all directions.”
Commissioner of Police Gari Baki said nine students had been admitted into the hospital for injuries they had sustained “allegedly in a confrontation with police at the Waigani Campus.” It was reported that dozens more were injured and four additional students had been killed in the scuffle.
Meanwhile, O’Neill maintains that no students were killed in the incident and that five had been wounded but were now in stable condition.
“The facts relayed to me are that a small group of students were violent, threw rocks at police and provoked a response that came in the form of tear gas and warning shots,” O’Neill said in a statement, dismissing calls by students for him to stand down.
However, the Australian government reports an “unconfirmed number” of deaths and serious injuries related to the incident.
Bystanders reported police firing on the crowd and the use of tear gas in an effort to break up the protest, while video released on social media show students running through clouds of tear gas and gunfire. Pictures have also been released showing several men with possible wounds to their stomach, chest, and legs.
Additional protests were later reported n the PNG Highland cities of Goroka and Mt Hagen, and in Lae on the north coast.
The U.S. embassy in Port Moresby has asked its citizens not to enter areas that have been hit by violence, saying the situation is still a threat and that violence could erupt at any moment. In addition, Virgin Australia turned around one flight headed to Port Moresby after citing safety concerns. No other flights have been disrupted so far.
At the same time, public transportation in the area has been shut down and businesses have been closed. Hubert Namani, a lawyer and business leader, said people are looting and rioting and police are busy trying to control it all.
Previously administered by Australia, Papua New Guinea has had trouble handling violence and poverty in the past despite its high volume of mineral resources. Transparency International’s corruption index ranks the country 139 out of 168.
A similar event happened in 2001 when police there opened fire on anti-government student protesters. However, a full account of the incident was never released.