PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (January 4, 2002 - Post-Courier/PINA Nius Online)---Sixteen panic-stricken people seeking to escape bullets in Mendi town in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands made a daring escape in a Twin Otter as it prepared to take off.

A Civil Aviation Authority witness said yesterday that people from a crowd escaping gunfire from warring tribesmen scaled the airport perimeter fence and forced themselves into the taxing aircraft.

The witness said the crowd had spilled onto the runway and it was a wonder that the aircraft found the room to actually take off.

The incident has earned the ire of the Civil Aviation Authority and an investigation is now under way.

Dozens of people are estimated to have been killed in weeks of tribal fighting around Mendi, in which high-powered weapons are being used.

"It was like a movie scene. People were running in all directions. Many headed for the safety of the airport buildings," the officer said.

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the people just boarded the South West Airline Twin Otter, which took off immediately for Mt. Hagen.

"It’s a very unusual situation. All the CAA rules were broken on this occasion," he said.

Other witnesses said the situation was set off by warriors from the Tuburi and Unjumap tribes who held up a vehicle from the Works Department at gun point. They then used it to search for enemy tribesmen in and around the town.

They said the people on the vehicle fired several rounds into the air from high-powered rifles and machine guns to disperse a crowd that had gathered within the vicinity of Mendi Airport.

One witness said: "When automatic gunfire began the crowd just panicked and there was something like a stampede with people running in all directions at once."

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

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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