AT least two people have died in violent clashes between rival groups of islanders in the Vanuatu capital.
Vanuatu's Prime Minister Ham Lini and chiefs from the affected communities were holding a crisis meeting today to try to calm the situation following the fighting, sparked by a dispute between the residents of two of the archipelago's 83 islands.
According to witnesses, a 300-strong mob of Tannese islanders armed with bushknives and clubs yesterday afternoon stormed an area full of Ambrym island residents following clashes at a reconciliation ceremony earlier in the day.
Chiefs play a prominent role in Vanuatu society, and are usually successful in defusing volatile situations using "kastom" (custom) ceremonies.
At least two people were killed in the violence, which forced many Port Vila businesses to close.
More than 100 people were holed up in the compound of the paramilitary Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF), fearing further violence.
Security at Port Vila's main hospital was increased, with staff saying they feared groups from both sides would come and "finish off" the wounded.
An Ambrym elder at the hospital visiting the wounded criticised the slow response of police and the VMF.
"Where are the police and VMF? We called the police many times but they never came," said the man, who did not want to be identified.
"The VMF headquarters were just down the road but they watched the Tannese come into the area and didn't try to stop them. Even now, 24 hours after this happened, there is still no police protection for our community," he said.
Vanuatu has so far managed to avoid the kind of serious ethnic conflict that has plagued other Melanesian countries such as their neighbours in the Solomon Islands.
Civil Unrest/Political Tension
The Government of Vanuatu declared a state of emergency on 4 March 2007 to restore public order in Port Vila. The proclamation prohibits assemblies and demonstrations. At this stage no curfew has been put in place. Australians are urged to exercise caution and monitor the media for any new security threats and risks.
You should avoid large gatherings and demonstrations. You should monitor the media and other local information sources for information about possible demonstrations or public gatherings and avoid relevant areas.