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By Korugl-Kumugl

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (December 18, 2001 -- The National)---The Southern Highlands provincial capital of Mendi is in the grip of fear as a fierce fight between two ethnic groups spilled over into the township and resulted in the burning down of a high school, theft of government vehicles and destruction of other government properties.

Eight people were reportedly killed at the start of the clash over the weekend. However, this has yet to be confirmed by police.

Already besieged by political turmoil, businesses and residents yesterday were starting to worry as the fighting between the Ujimap and Tugup tribes, residing to the north of Mendi, spilled over into the town.

According to reports from Mendi yesterday, a lot of government vehicles were stolen and many were damaged in a rampage.

The reports said businesses operated cautiously as the fighting moved to the perimeter of the town.

Sources in Mendi said last night that several State-owned properties were set on fire as well.

"The Mendi High School is going up in flames but you have to talk to the commander. He is there at the scene," the Southern Highlands police chief, Chief Inspector Jeffrey Kera, said from Mendi.

Classrooms and facilities at Mendi Provincial High School went up in flames as the fighting moved into the school area, the sources said.

The reports say apart from the school, the Mendi Provincial Hospital has been closed and the patients have been transferred to other health facilities in the Highlands.

A source in the business sector in Mendi said last night that several businesses located in the northern part of the town were soon going to vacate their premises.

"We have our machines in the yard there. We have to move them out quickly," said the source.

The sources confirmed hearing gunfire.

Eyewitness reports on Sunday said that eight people were killed in a dawn raid conducted by one of the warring parties.

Highlands Divisional Commander, Assistant Commissioner Tony Wagambie, led reinforcements from Mount Hagen to Mendi to boost the police strength in the town to bring the fighting under control and protect government properties.

Police said that the warring groups were using high-powered guns like AR15s, SLRs and M16s.

The entire Tende village has been reduced to ashes after it was set afire in the surprise attack.

It is not established at this stage whether the fighting is related to the power struggle going on between politicians from the province.

The fighting is said to be an ongoing conflict between the two groups over the death of a student in a road accident in 1999.

The fighting however, erupted again on Friday, as the Supreme Court ruled that Governor Anderson Agiru remained in office but without powers and that the election of Tari-Pori MP Tom Tomiape two weeks ago was unconstitutional and invalid.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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