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Pacific News Minute: Notorious Outlaw Leads Attacks on Police in Papua New Guinea

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Authorities in Papua New Guinea are hunting a notorious outlaw whose been leading attacks on police in Milne Bay province. Following a prison escape, Tommy Baker has been blamed for armed robberies, piracy and murder but some blame the local police.

If you think of the island of New Guinea as a huge bird, Milne Bay lies between the tail feathers, all the way to the east. Until recently, Milne Bay Province and its capital, Alotau, enjoyed a reputation as one of the most peaceful areas in Papua New Guinea, and a favorite tourist destination.

Last August, armed robbers hit a dive resort in Alotau, and left with the wallets, cell phones and cameras of 20 foreign visitors. Violence has spiraled since.

Tommy Baker, the alleged ringleader, escaped from a prison in Port Moresby on October 3rd. Since then, he’s acquired notoriety, armed followers and public support.

In November, a speeding police vehicle killed a young mother and her son in a traffic accident in Alotau. The next day, police fired warning shots to break up a protest – they say they feared that Tommy Baker’s gang would use the unrest as cover to start looting.

Since then, there have been at least two shootouts with police, and several killed and injured on both sides. In the course of one pursuit, police burned more than a dozen houses, Baker’s men burned houses at a police barracks in retaliation. Provincial Police commander George Bayagau told RNZ Pacific that Baker has tapped into anti-police sentiment: “He’s telling the people ‘I am not here for you, but I am here for the policemen.’” 

PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has branded Baker a terrorist and sent police reinforcements to Milne Bay; authorities have also opened investigations into police conduct.

Tommy Baker remains at large.

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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