Papua New Guinea court bars university protests after violence

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Papua New Guinea court has granted an injunction barring university students from protesting on campus after dozens of people were wounded during clashes between student protesters and police in the capital, Port Moresby.

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A groundswell of political unrest in recent weeks has surged in the country, just to Australia’s north, amid calls for Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to resign over corruption allegations.

Papua New Guinea is developing lucrative resource projects with energy majors ExxonMobil and Total that have made it a major gas producer. But corruption and violence are endemic in the island nation of seven million, raising concerns about its long-term stability.

The government said initial reports that up to four people had been killed in the clashes on Wednesday were incorrect. An official at the Port Moresby General Hospital said 38 casualties had been treated there, including four with bullet wounds, but no deaths.

Students and officials said police fired on the public and used tear gas to disperse crowds during a protest at the University of PNG’s Waigani campus in Port Moresby. Protests were later reported in the PNG highland cities of Goroka and Mt. Hagen, and in Lae on the north coast.

Papua New Guinea Higher Education Minister Malakai Tabar welcomed the court order blocking students from resuming their rolling protests.

“The overwhelming majority of students simply want to go to class, sit their exams and proceed to the next semester,” Tabar said, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Thousands of students across PNG have been protesting and boycotting classes for weeks. They want O’Neill, who came to power in 2011 promising to reign in corruption, to face allegations he authorized millions of dollars in fraudulent payments to a leading law firm.

Student protest leader Noel Anjo told Reuters on Thursday the protesters had no intention of giving up.

“The students are not going to give up until and unless the prime minister resigns or surrenders himself to police and is arrested and charged,” Anjo said by phone from Port Moresby. “This fight will continue.”

O’Neill is facing multiple corruption investigations and has used the power of his office to avoid facing charges, said Paul Barker, director of the Institute of National Affairs think tank in Papua New Guinea.

“He has a strong vested interest in not stepping down because obviously if he steps down, his position to protect himself and deal with the public officers who are involved in investigations and prosecutions is substantially weakened,” Barker told Reuters from Port Moresby.

“There no doubt will be pressure from various parties, but it’s hard to see him readily responding to those pressures.”

Editing by Lincoln Feast