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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, Jan. 6) - Armed criminals in the Southern Highlands village of Tari have struck again.

Over the weekend, they took three people hostage and forced the release of one of their compatriots held in police custody. They were also involved in a gun battle with police detectives investigating a series of crimes in the area.

Provincial Police Commander Simon Nigi said police in Tari were forced to release an armed hold-up suspect after his compatriots kidnapped three relatives from the complainant's village and forced the complainant to withdraw the charges against the suspect.

Mr Nigi said two men and a woman were held up at gunpoint at Tokia bridge and taken to Pureni by the criminals. At Pureni, they demanded that the complainant withdraw the charges and police release the suspect who was held in custody or the three people would be killed.

"The complainant, who had suffered from the hands of the criminals, was forced to withdraw the complaint and asked police to release the suspect," Mr Nigi said. This is not the first time an incident involving the kidnapping of people has taken place in Tari.

In 2002 Ben Peri, a lawyer and candidate for the Koroba/Kopiago seat, was kidnapped and later released in this area which is about five hours' drive west of Mendi. A policeman lost his life in this incident.

Over the 2003 Christmas holiday, two policemen were taken hostage by criminal elements in the area but were released unharmed following negotiations involving youth leaders. 

Superintendent Nigi said four detectives travelling in a patrol car to Nogoli from Tari were fired upon by some armed men at Waralo.

"The armed men were lined up at both sides of the road and fired at the police car," Supt Nigi said. But none of his men were hurt.

"Our men returned fire but I am not sure if any of the criminals sustained some casualties," Mr Nigi said.

He believes the men who fired at police are the ones led by David Agini, the men responsible for the kidnapping of the policemen in Tari a few weeks ago. He said they may have used the three rifles they stole from police to shoot at his men.

The CID officers have not returned to Tari.

But Mr Nigi said he had dispatched a section of Mobile Squad 8 to assist police in Tari.

Mr Nigi said the deteriorating law and order situation in the district came about after the withdrawal of Mt Hagen's Mobile Squad 7 two weeks ago.

"People are now taking advantage of no major police presence in the western end," Supt Nigi said.

There are nine regular policemen in Tari, with two vehicles.

January 6, 2004

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