The two main cities of Papua New Guinea were shaken, on the night of Wednesday January 10 to Thursday January 11, by riots which left fifteen people dead. Clashes broke out in the capital, Port Moresby, on Wednesday evening after protests led by soldiers, police and prison guards against the government. Angry crowds burned buildings and ransacked shops during a night of chaos and the violence then spread to the town of Lae, 300 kilometers to the north.

Royal Papua New Guinea Police Commissioner David Manning confirmed on Thursday afternoon that at least fifteen people had died in the two towns. Port Moresby’s main hospital treated twenty-five people with gunshot wounds, according to figures provided to Agence France-Presse (AFP), and six others with lacerations caused by “machetes”. Prime Minister James Marape apologized, saying outbursts of “anarchy” would “not be tolerated”. “It’s your country as much as mine. Breaking the law does not achieve certain goals,” he said at a press conference.

Videos filmed in the capital by AFP showed looters rushing into stores with broken windows, stuffing stolen goods into boxes, supermarket trolleys and plastic buckets. Buildings and cars were set on fire, according to AFP images, and thick plumes of black smoke hovered over the most affected areas of the city. Earlier, a smaller crowd gathered outside the prime minister’s office in Port Moresby, tearing down a security fence and setting fire to a parked police car.

Beijing has filed a complaint with the Papua New Guinea government, following reports that rioters targeted Chinese-owned businesses. The Chinese Embassy in Papua New Guinea said in a statement that “a number of Chinese stores were looted.” “No deaths of Chinese nationals have been reported so far,” but “several were lightly injured,” she added. For its part, the United States Embassy in Port Moresby reported shots fired near its compound as police tried to “disperse groups of looters.”

City’s ‘Darkest Day’

Powes Parkop, the governor of the region encompassing the capital, said the unrest represented an “unprecedented level of conflict” in Port Moresby, while the Post Courier, a local newspaper, called it the “darkest day” of the city. “What is most important is that we must end this conflict,” Mr. Parkop insisted to a local radio station on Wednesday evening, stressing that “no one will win from this type of civil unrest “.

Security forces staged a protest inside Parliament after seeing their salaries drop without explanation. Although the government quickly promised to correct what it described as a “technical problem,” it was not enough to stop disgruntled civilians from joining the uproar. This outbreak of violence highlights the difficulties in Papua New Guinea, a country plagued by poverty and a high crime rate. Located approximately 200 kilometers north of Australia, Papua New Guinea is the largest and most populous state in Melanesia.

Although the country is blessed with vast deposits of gas, gold and minerals, human rights groups estimate that nearly 40 percent of its 9 million people still live below the poverty line. Australia recently struck a security deal with Papua New Guinea, promising to help its police force combat arms trafficking, drug smuggling and tribal violence. “We continue to call for calm during these difficult times,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Thursday.