Murder raises security concerns for Hides projects

National, Normal

Report and picture by ANDREW ALPHONSE in TARI

OIL Search Ltd (OSL), operator of the Hides gas project in Tari, Southern Highlands province, and ExxonMobil, operator of the multi-billion PNG LNG gas project, yesterday raised serious security concerns about their operations at Hides following the cold-blooded murder of an OSL employee at the gates of the Hides gas plant on Monday evening.
The deceased was identified as Iripalu Matiabe of Egele village in South Koroba who is also a former councillor and works as community liaison officer with OSL at Hides.
Matiabe, 49, was from the Iriwaga clan of the JP Karai group, principal landowners of the Hides gas field.
Police said Matiabe was returning back from work when he was shot at point blank range at about 6.30pm at Kulu village, a few meters away from the Hides gas plant site.
Police said the assailants were believed to be his tribal enemies and used a home-made pistol.
The killing shocked and angered his tribesmen who immediately demanded that the police apprehend the assailants and put them behind bars or else they would take the law into their own hands and retaliate.
Tension is mounting and there are fears of an all out tribal fight near the Hides gas plant following the killing, and OSL management at Hides have requested the urgent deployment of a section of the Tari-based police mobile squad unit 09 to protect its gas processing plant at Hides.
The gas plant currently supplies power to the nearby Porgera gold mine in Enga province.
Police said Matiabe was a leader and promoter of peace in the area, and were investigating his killing. Matiabe’s body was transported by OSL vehicles under police escort yesterday afternoon to Tari General Hospital for an autopsy.
Provincial police commander Supt Jimmy Onopia confirmed receiving reports of the killing at Hides when contacted yesterday and said Hides and the LNG project were priority areas for security and if need be, he would deploy additional manpower to protect these projects.
Supt Onopia said currently, MS09 and MS11 from Wabag would monitor the situation and provide security.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil, through its subsidiary Esso Highlands Ltd, also suspended all its operations at Hides and Komo areas following increased lawlessness in the area.
Among the operations affected include early works preparations for the construction phase of the LNG project, the Komo international airport development, Yuni LNG technical college, and the construction of forward base at Kobalu near Hides.
A senior Esso Highlands employee, who refused to be named, told The National at Hides yesterday that ExxonMobil had  suspended all their operations.
The source said recently, an ExxonMobil vehicle was stolen from their camp at Hides while last Saturday an expatriate contractor who was surveying the land at Komo for the international airport was attacked.
The source said tribal fights near the projects sites at Kobalu, Idawi, Pureni, Tani, Waralo and other lawless acts like armed road blocks has forced ExxonMobil to suspend its operations until the Government addresses these problems.