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Thirteen more people were killed in the tribal fight in Mendi, Southern Highlands over the weekend and Christmas period, the Catholic Church said yesterday.

December 28, 2001 – Post-Courier)---The death toll is now a confirmed 36, but could be more. Tribes are not revealing the exact number of deaths in the two weeks of tribal warfare in the Southern Highlands capital.

On Saturday, nine people were killed on both sides of the warring Unjumap and Wagia tribes. Two women from the Wagia tribe were shot dead and their bodies split in half by blows from bush knives and axes.

The women, painted with ashes and dressed in banana leaves, were transporting food to combatants in the battlefield when they were surrounded and shot dead by enemy tribesmen.

The Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mendi, Steven Reichert, said it was difficult to determine the exact number of people killed so far.

He said it was a new and fearful record in tribal fights in the Highlands region, where a lot of lives had been lost within a very short period.

The ongoing fighting is believed to have begun over the death of a student in a road accident in 1999.

Archbishop Reichert said: "There’s been a lot of loss of lives. This is exclusively a high-powered gun battle. The death rate is faster and more devastating than any ordinary tribal fight with bows and arrows or home made and factory made shotguns.

"It is very difficult to determine the number of deaths. At the minimum, there were 36 deaths so far. There are strong rumors that the deaths could be up to 56."

He said this could be true because nobody was going into the battlefields to count the deaths and that the warring tribes were hiding their dead from the police, enemy tribes and outsiders.

Archbishop Reichert said people from other tribes who had high-powered weapons and were experienced in gun battles, were being hired as mercenaries by both the Unjumap and Wagia tribes.

The Unjumap tribes have left their homes around the partly devastated Mendi High School and fled to the Tuberi hills in the north.

Archbishop Reichert said there was no indication that the fight would stop because the battle was extending to more tribes in the Lai Valley and the number of deaths was increasing rapidly.

There was no fighting on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but on Wednesday and yesterday spasmodic rifle fire was heard.

The fighting was moving away into the mountains and the sounds of battle, unlike last week, could only be heard in the distance, he said.

Archbishop Reichert said national parliamentarians from the province, including the Mendi electorate, provincial and tribal leaders had not shown up or participated in any way to help stop the fight.

"This is a very serious situation. Women and children are without food and homeless, many lives are lost, government services are being interrupted. The leaders should come out and look at ways to solve this problem," Archbishop Reichert said.

The clergyman reiterated the Papua New Guinea Catholic Bishops’ Conference stand on the build-up and illegal use of firearms in Mendi and the rest of the country.

Archbishop Reichert said he was sure that over a hundred high-powered rifles and other weapons were being used in the tribal fight in Mendi.

He said the use of such lethal weapons getting near to the 2002 National Elections was a very big problem that needed to be addressed at all levels and very quickly.

"We are praying that something will happen soon. The bishops’ conference has made a wake up call to the national government on the gun situation in the country. We wonder if our concern was taken heed of.

Meanwhile, over 200 mobile squad members were sent into the area to monitor the situation last week. Highlands divisional commander Tony Wagambie said the situation was slowly getting under control.

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

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