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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protests in Papua New Guinea Spark Police Clashes, Looting

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea -- Papua New Guinea was thrown into turmoil Thursday as protesters and soldiers demanded the reinstatement of a sacked army chief and criminal gangs took advantage of a social, political and military crisis.


Police fired tear gas at looters around the city, and shots rang out through the day near an army barracks where thousands of people gathered to protest against Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan.


The crisis began Monday when Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok demanded that Chan resign and an inquiry be held into the hiring of foreign mercenaries to end the Bougainville island conflict, where rebels have battled the government since 1988. Chan promptly sacked his army commander.


Chan said Thursday an inquiry would be held into the mercenary contract with British-based consultancy Sandline International and that the $28 million contract had been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry.


Confrontation between police and troops was narrowly avoided Thursday after running battles between police and protesters spilled into the sprawling Murray barracks.


Scores of protesters ran in through the barracks gate, and police fired tear gas into the compound after them, angering soldiers who have remained inside the barracks since Monday.


A group of enraged soldiers started kicking down the door of the armory for weapons but were stopped by junior officers who had to draw their own sidearms. While the army has been the focus for protests against Chan, the police force is believed to be backing the government.


Any confrontation between the forces, traditional rivals, would have unpredictable consequences for democracy in the South Pacific nation.


Thursday's unrest initially appeared to be more criminal than political. Looters roamed the run-down city of around 150,000 people. Local gangs known as "rascals" normally make Port Moresby highly dangerous.