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Police reinforcements have been rushed to a remote part of Papua New Guinea after officers clashed with a shadowy cult accused of beheading villagers and offering them as human sacrifices.
Several people were reportedly killed and many injured after gun battles broke out between police and members of the cult, based in the mountains of Morobe province on PNG’s north coast.
Religious cults flourish in many parts of the country, which is divided into more than 800 tribal groups and achieved independence from Australia in 1975.
The central highlands were only penetrated by white explorers in the 1930s and belief in black magic remains strong.
The recent spread of Aids has baffled villagers in remote areas and led to accusations of witchcraft, with alleged witches being tortured and killed.
Commander Augustine Wampe, of Morobe police, said a helicopter carrying a mobile squad of anti-riot officers had been dispatched to the area following reports of murders in which victims were beheaded and their heads impaled on stakes.
Some of the heads were then allegedly paraded around a village. “The reported activities of the people point to cult activity,” Cdr Wampe told The National newspaper.
Police first suspected the existence of a cult when a child was kidnapped last month near the town of Finschhafen, formerly part of the colony of German New Guinea.
Four officers who were sent to rescue the child were ambushed and fired on by villagers. Gun violence is common in Papua New Guinea — tribesmen who once fought with bows and arrows can now buy automatic weapons from corrupt soldiers and police.
“Gunfire was exchanged and one of the policemen was injured in the leg with an arrow. Another policeman fell over a cliff. Another policeman who was lost was found a day later,” said Cdr Wampe.
Eight reinforcements were despatched from the town of Lae but were forced to retreat after an exchange of gunfire with the villagers.
One man was reportedly killed and several injured.
The villagers then regrouped and went on a rampage, attacking police and government officials and burning down houses.
They also killed a man believed to be a tribal enemy, chopping up his body, Cdr Wampe said. Police were still trying to negotiate a peace deal with the villagers and bring to justice those responsible for the violence.
In March a cult leader calling himself Black Jesus was captured by police in neighbouring Madang province.
Steven Tari, 35, is accused of raping, killing and eating young sex slaves he recruited in remote jungle villages.
A failed Bible college student, he wore long flowing robes and claimed to be the “true Christ”. He allegedly promised his 6,000 followers material wealth and religious salvation if they joined his movement.
(Posted on May 10, 2007)