A suspect in a traffic accident case was hacked to death during his trial in the presence of the Papua New Guinea chief justice, police said yesterday.

The murder took place Monday as the court was making an on-the-spot inspection of the site of the accident, which occurred last October in the tiny town of Bereina on the Gulf of Papua.

Papua New Guinea's chief justice, Sir William Prentice, and the court party were viewing the road when about 50 villagers, some armed with bush knives and machetes, appeared and attacked unarmed policemen escorting the group. Sir William stood helpless as the villagers then turned on the accused, Morrie Modeda. 28, who has facing a charge of dangerous driving in the death of a man who had relatives in the local village, police said.

During the fighting, the chief justice tried to stop the man's bleeding with his handkerchief, but Modeda died later in a plane flying him to Port Moresby for medical treatment.

Sir William resumed proceedings in Port Moresby on Tuesday with the announcement: "The accused is not present. He is dead. I have evidence of this tragic incident in the shape of a handkerchief soaked with Modeda's lifeblood, with which I endeavored to staunch his wound."

He added that unless the members of the tribe who he said organized the attack surrender, "I shall retain that handkerchief as a mark of shame for the village concerned.

"Such an example of cold-blooded, planned treachery, such a determined attack on an unarmed person in the actual presence of the court going about its duty to find the truth, must rank as one of the most lawless and disgraceful episodes in recent years in Papua New Guinea."