Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Prison officers in Papua New Guinea shot and killed 17 inmates involved in a mass prison break, local media reported on Monday, sparking calls for an investigation into overcrowded jails in the South Pacific nation where Australia detains asylum seekers.

Fifty escapees were still on the run from the Buimo prison in the city of Lae on Papua New Guinea's north coast, police said on their official Facebook page, warning the public that an increase in carjackings and armed robberies was likely.

"These are dangerous individuals," Lae Metropolitan Police Command said. "Police anticipate an increase in serious crimes in the city."

Local media reported than more than 70 prisoners attempted to escape from the Buimo prison, nearly 320 kilometers north of the capital Port Moresby, on Friday. The Post Courier and The National newspapers reported that 17 prisoners were shot dead, three captured, and 57 were still at large.

It was the third mass breakout from Buimo in three years. International human rights groups have repeatedly called for an inquiry into PNG jails, citing concerns about overcrowding, limited access to medical treatment and delays in court proceedings.

"Unfortunately these incidents, tragic as they are, happen all too frequently in Papua New Guinea as there is poor accountability with police and security officers," Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International's Pacific Researcher, told Reuters by telephone.

In February last year, 11 prisoners were killed in an attempted breakout at Buimo after 30 prisoners attacked guards.

Fifty-five men escaped from the prison in a breakout in 2015 and two years earlier one detainee was shot dead when 44 fled the same facility in another mass escape.

Australia maintains an asylum-seeker detention center on PNG's Manus Island, in accordance with its policy of not allowing people who attempt to reach Australia by boat to settle in the country.

The Manus camp, one of two South Pacific island asylum seeker detention centers funded by Australia, has been criticized by human right groups and the United Nations for cramp conditions, inadequate medical facilities and violence.

The PNG Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the camp was illegal and should close, forcing Australia to confirm it would shut down the camp by the end of 2017.

Australia struck a deal with former U.S. President Barack Obama to take some detainees who were deemed refugees, an agreement criticized by President Donald Trump as a "dumb deal" when he took office earlier this year.