ZACHERY PER and JAMES APA GUMUNO
POLICE and Electoral Commission (EC) officials were trapped last Friday night in Kandep after armed villagers cut trees to block the highway to prevent them from moving ballot boxes out of the town.
There was a heavy exchange of gunfire as police stood their ground to protect and defend election officials and the ballot boxes containing the registered votes.
According to reports reaching The National from Kandep, all hell broke loose after the EC decided not to
conduct polling in three polling areas, and to move the counting of votes from Kandep to Mt Hagen.
Fighting and the presence of gunmen had prevented helicopters from going into Tarapis, Muyan and Sawi 2 polling areas to conduct polling.
The situation became so bad that returning officer Poevare Tore made the decision to abandon polling in those areas.
He also made the decision to move counting of votes to Mt Hagen after counting and polling officials expressed grave fears about their safety.
Sources said after receiving reports that there were plans to destroy the ballot boxes, police and polling officials moved out of Kandep in a convoy of vehicles. But they drove straight into an ambush near the Kandep High School. Trees were felled and placed across the highway for about three kilometers.
The convoy then came under attack, and police returned fire.
“We came under attack, but the police stood their ground. We dug in and stayed up all night,” an official, who asked not to be named, said.
Police called for reinforcements, and on Saturday morning, helicopters brought in new supplies of ammunition, along with two chainsaws, which were used to cut the trees felled across the road and remove them.
Assistant Police Commissioner (ACP) Highlands, Simon Kauba, confirmed the road block and the attack on the EC officials and policemen.
He said although supporters of candidates had fired shots at them, the police were quick to respond by moving the ballot boxes and officials to Kandep High School.
“I commend the policemen for their efforts to save the ballot boxes and Electoral Commission officials and bring them to safety,” ACP Kauba said.
He said some ugly scenes were witnessed in Kandep last Thursday as supporters of candidates openly attacked each other.
He said that prominent candidates present there had failed to control their supporters and ensure respect for the rule of law.
“The atmosphere was unfriendly, therefore counting officials wanted counting to be conducted outside of Kandep because it was unsafe,” ACP Kauba said.
EC officials and police told The National in Goroka yesterday soon after arriving from Kandep that they had to send a helicopter to Mt Hagen to pick up two chainsaws and petrol to cut the felled trees to pave the way for vehicles to pass through.
An election official, who declined to disclose his name, said it was a frightening experience and he was “relieved” to be out of Kandep.
He said the highway was blocked off by several felled trees for about 3km.
The fully armed policemen walked the stretch of the road block to cut the trees and clear the blockage for 70 vehicles to pass through at a snail’s pace.
He said they spent Friday night at the roadblock under heavy police guard.
Another official involved in flying polling officials and ballot papers to various locations said it was a very frightening experience and he would never go back there again.
“If this is a taste of what is to come in 2012, good luck to those going up there,” he said.
There were reports that the Kandep district treasury office and other buildings had been burnt to the ground, but this could not be confirmed.
Police could not put a figure on election-related fatalities, although one candidate said there could be as many as 15 deaths so far.
Meanwhile, during a press conference on Saturday, candidate Alfred Manase claimed it was the supporters of candidate Don Polye who had cut trees and blocked the road.
Mr Manase said Mr Polye should be arrested for engaging his people to block the road.
But Mr Polye rejected this claim, saying that disgruntled Kandep voters who were not able to cast their votes had blocked the road.
Mr Polye said he actually physically removed the roadblock at Kokas and this was witnessed by police.