Spears, machetes used in attack on tourists in PNG

SYDNEY, Sept 11, 2013 (AFP) - A group of Australian and New Zealand trekkers including one woman have been savagely attacked and injured by bandits in Papua New Guinea with two of their guides hacked to death, officials said Wednesday.

The deadly incident happened at dusk on Tuesday after the group set up their tents along the rugged Black Cat Track in the lawless Pacific nation's northern Morobe province, with robbery the suspected motive.

"The attack resulted in the deaths of two PNG nationals who were porters for the group," Australia's department of foreign affairs said.

"Other members of the group - including eight Australians, one New Zealander and a number of PNG nationals - sustained injuries during the attack, however none of the injuries are life-threatening."

The tour leader was identified in several Australian reports as a woman and all the other trekkers were said to be men.

PNG police spokesman Dominic Kakas told AFP the porters were hacked to death with machetes and four of the trekkers were badly assaulted, including one who was speared.

"One of the expatriates was speared through the left leg, one was slashed on the arm, another suffered severe lacerations to the head and another also had severe cuts," he said.

"Some of the other porters were more seriously injured.

"There were six in the mob that attacked them," he added, with all escaping. "One had a rifle, another a home-made gun, as well as bush knives and spears."

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said the attack was an "obvious setback" as the poverty-stricken nation seeks to increase tourism, and vowed capital punishment for those found responsible under tough new laws passed in May.

"I make no apology whatsoever for the death penalty being the punishment available to be applied for such crimes," O'Neill said of the "appalling" violence.

Australia's acting foreign minister Tanya Plibersek also condemned the attack.

"This was a savage and unprovoked assault by what may have been a gang of thieves," she said, adding that she had been assured that authorities in PNG, one of Australia's biggest aid recipients, would fully investigate.

Crime in PNG is rampant, including in the capital Port Moresby where in June four Chinese nationals were hacked to death, with one reportedly beheaded and the others dismembered.

Brutality against women is particularly endemic. In April, a US academic was gang-raped while she was trekking along a jungle trail with her husband and a guide.

After the latest attack, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said workers at a local mining company helped the trekkers walk to a medical clinic at their nearby camp. Kakas said they were then taken to a hospital in Lae, PNG's second city and the capital of Morobe province.

Mark Hitchcock, a spokesman for tour operator PNG Trekking Adventures, said the injured Australians were now recovering.

"This is an isolated area, an isolated incident that shocked us all. Totally out of character for the track," he told ABC.

"This is the first ever trouble that we've had on any track in Papua New Guinea. It's a difficult track, the Black Cat Track, and there have been some issues with other companies a long time ago, but of recent time there's been a lot of development gone into the track since 2005."

While the attack was believed to be a robbery, some reports suggested it could also be related to a disagreement between porters from PNG's lowlands and locals living in the highlands.

The Black Cat Track runs between Wau and Salamaua in northern PNG through leech- and snake-infested jungle with precarious drops and potentially dangerous river crossings.

It was the scene of bitter fighting in 1943, pitting Australian and US troops against Japanese forces. Guide book Lonely Planet describes the trail as "suitable only for masochists and Israeli paratroopers".