MELBOURNE, Nov 23 (Reuters) - ExxonMobil has evacuated non-essential staff in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, it said on Thursday, due to unrest in the area, but said operations are continuing at its PNG LNG liquefied natural gas project.
"Due to recent community tension in the Highlands (Hides, Angore, Komo), ExxonMobil PNG has suspended non-essential work," the company said in a statement emailed to Reuters. It declined to specify the nature of "non-essential" work.
It said its gas conditioning plant at Hides, which processes gas before it is sent via a 760-kilometre (472-mile) pipeline to the PNG LNG export plant at Port Moresby, is continuing to operate.
"ExxonMobil PNG continues to monitor the situation in Hela Province. The safety and security of our employees, contractors and the local community is a top priority," the company said, adding that non-essential staff have been moved out of the area.
Violence has escalated in the highlands, where gas is produced for the LNG project, due to anger among locals over the nation's election process earlier this year and disputes over royalties from the PNG LNG project, an observer said.
"In fact the situation is so bad that I am unable to travel to my field site," Michael Main, an Australian doctoral student who has regularly been in and out of the highlands for his research, told Reuters.
Main said one of ExxonMobil's camps in the highlands had been attacked and an ex-patriate security staff member had been kidnapped and released earlier this week. Radio New Zealand also reported the kidnapping on Thursday. ExxonMobil declined to comment.
"For safety and security reasons, we do not discuss details of our personnel or operations," ExxonMobil said.
Oil Search Ltd, which operates oil and gas fields in the area and is a partner in PNG LNG, said there has been no impact on its operations and its staff are working as normal.
Reporting by Sonali Paul; editing by Richard Pullin