PNG HIGHLAND THUGS ROB BANK IN SHOOTOUT WITH POLICE

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By James Apa Gumuno and Peter Pia

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, Feb. 26) - Mt. Hagen city was under siege by criminals with high-powered weapons, who fearlessly exchanged gunfire with police, while breaking into a bank and a hardware house in the early hours of last Friday.

Terrified city residents woke up to the sounds of gunfire as the criminals traded bullets with police before escaping.

A policeman was injured in the shootout.

In an apparently planned raid, the criminals virtually took over the city just after midnight last Friday.

They rounded up the security guards posted around the shops and offices in the city, held them at gunpoint at the Komkui Building before proceeding to break into the Westpac Bank.

Mr. Kond Wiri, supervisor of Wapa Security Service, said the guards were powerless to stop the armed thugs.

He said the criminals warned them that they would be shot dead if they ventured away from the Komkui Building and tried to stop them breaking into the bank.

He said he saw at least five thugs armed with high-powered guns take up positions in various sections of the city near the bank while the others were breaking into it.

Police arrived in two vehicles and exchanged gunfire with them.

The criminals got away without opening the bank’s safe.

Kond said the gunmen also broke into Steamships hardware and stole goods and a large amount of cash, after detaining security officers guarding the hardware.

Steamship branch manager Mr. Rex Apuka said his company lost between PGK50,000 [US$17,000] and PGK60,000 [US$21,000] in cash and about PGK6,000 [US$2,000] worth of goods to the thugs.

He said the thugs smashed two locks and the main roller door to gain excess into the building.

He said the main administration office was destroyed and the day’s takings and deposits from customers were taken.

Some of the goods stolen included radios, TV deck players and hardware materials.

Akupa said police arrived at the scene but couldn’t do much because the criminals had escaped.

Westpac Bank officials in Hagen were reluctant to release any information when contacted.

Metropolitan police commander Chief Superintendant Mr. Theodore Muriki said yesterday he was awaiting a report on the incident.

Muriki confirmed that a policeman working with the communication section Mr. George Baiyer received bullet wounds in his back and is receiving medical treatment.

Western Highlands Deputy Governor Honorable Wai Rapa said the province was no longer safe for anyone and urged the National Government to declare a State of Emergency in the province.

Rapa said a lot of high-powered guns were being circulated in the province for the national elections and were now being used for criminal acts.

He feared that business houses and city residents were no longer safe.

He said what happened last Thursday night was a wake up call for the National Government to do something about the deteriorating law and order situation in the city.

Rapa said police were not fully equipped to deal with such incidents and as a result their response was very poor.

A resident who was awakened by the sound of gunfire said the city was virtually taken over by criminals and hooligans.

"This city is not safe anymore. I’m sacred of living here," he said on condition of anonymity.

Another resident, a housewife, said she no longer felt safe to go shopping, and would ask her husband to seek a transfer to another province.

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