At least four people were killed and several others injured when police in Papua New Guinea's capital opened fire on a student protest rally on Wednesday.
Rioting, looting and gunshots erupted after the incident. Police opened fire on students protesting against the Prime Minister Peter O'Neill at a university campus in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby.
An official at the Port Moresby General Hospital said that 38 people were treated at the hospital and five of them were in critical condition. However, the officials say there have been no deaths.
Students have been boycotting classes in their month-long standoff with authorities. They demand Prime Minister Peter O'Neill step aside over corruption allegations.
The clashes broke out as students prepared to march from the University of Papua New Guinea to the parliament, where O'Neill was due to face a no-confidence vote.
Anti-corruption campaigner Noel Anjo Kolao, who organised the protest, said police had pointed their guns at the students.
"Then they started shooting at them," he told AFP by phone, saying he saw several injured students.
"We have two sets of laws in Papua New Guinea, one for the prime minister and one for ordinary citizens."
Noel Anjo Kolao is the president of an NGO named People’s Power Movement (PPM). This NGO works under the umbrella of a main organisation called Partners with Melanesians Inc (PwM).
Police Commissioner Gari Baki said that 23 people were hurt, adding that students turned violent and clashed with police when the force tried to stop the demonstrators’ march towards the parliament.
He said that police fired in the air to disperse the crowd. He claimed that the protesters were armed with machetes, bows and arrows and homemade guns. They attempted to burn down a police barracks but were thwarted, he added.
"Police in the city and around the country will come down hard on any opportunists who want to cause trouble," he warned.
O'Neill refuses to step down
Prime Minister O'Neill refused to comply with a warrant for his arrest over corruption charges. The anti-corruption police are investigating whether he authorised millions of dollars in illegal payments from the government to a law firm named Paraka Lawyers.
When the arrest warrant was issued in 2014, O'Neill sacked the PNG police commissioner, fired his attorney-general and suspended numerous other justice department and police officials. He also wanted to disband the anti-corruption force.
Responding the students’ concerns, O'Neill published a lengthy letter last month over graft allegations and termed these accusations as ‘politically motivated’.
He said on Wednesday that "a small group of students were violent, threw rocks at police and provoked a response that came in the form of tear gas and warning shots".
He also blamed the political opponents for what he termed ‘agitations’ against the government. "The factors that led to students being injured are yet to be ascertained," O'Neill said.
Both Canberra and Washington issued warnings, with the US embassy in Port Moresby saying: "The situation is still volatile and could escalate at any time."
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called for calm.
"We call on all sides for calm to de-escalate the tensions and certainly call on all sides to respect the peaceful and lawful right to protest," she said.