Papua New Guinea declares state of emergency over riots

By Alison Bevege

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea has declared a state of emergency, suspended a provincial government and is sending armed forces to its rugged highlands to restore order after rioters went on a rampage of looting and burning, the government said.

Violence has often ravaged the remote interior of the resource-rich Pacific nation, where tribal and land disputes overlay regional politics.

Armed crowds angered over the failure of a court challenge to a regional governor's election burned an airplane, looted a warehouse and torched buildings in Mendi, the capital of the Southern Highlands province, this week.

Papua New Guinea has declared a nine-month state of emergency in the province, and suspended its government for the duration, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said on Friday.

"The actions of reckless individuals damaging property in Mendi has disgusted the nation," O'Neill said on his website.

"Police will investigate every agitator, and every person who was involved in the unrest."

Thomas Eluh, a former policeman and acting administrator in the province, has been given constitutional emergency powers.

Police, including a mobile squad, were immediately deployed, along with criminal investigators, O'Neill added.

More than 200 PNG Defence Force troops are to be flown to the city of Mount Hagen on Saturday before making their way to Mendi, media outlet Loop PNG said.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the report of troop movements.

Looters ransacked a warehouse of earthquake relief supplies during the Mendi rioting, said Barclay Tenza, a spokesman for the provincial disaster.

"They took all the foodstuffs," he said by telephone from Port Moresby.

Many communities are still receiving aid after February's 7.5-magnitude earthquake killed 100 people, testing the finances and capacity of one of the world’s poorest countries.

(Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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