Neil Dalton and Aidan Brunger, both 22 and in their fourth year at Newcastle University, were on the island, which is jointly owned by Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia, on attachment to a hospital in the city of Kuching. Police said they were attacked and killed in the street by a gang of four local men.
Officers said the crime happened at 4:15am yesterday in the Jalan Padungan area of the city, in Sarawak province, in the Malaysian part of the island.
Deputy police commissioner Datuk Dr Chai Khin Chung said an argument started after a local man told the students they were being too noisy.
The suspects followed the students in a car when they left the bar and attacked them, he said. Officers have seized the car and a knife allegedly used in the attack.
Commissioner Chung added Mr Dalton and Mr Brunger had been due to finish their training at the local hospital tomorrow, after working there for six weeks.
The two students were said to have been staying near the Green Hill Road area of Kuching. The Foreign Office last night said it was providing consular assistance to the men’s families.
Professor Tony Stevenson, acting vice-chancellor at Newcastle University, said: “We were informed of the very sad news that two of our fourth-year medical students working at a hospital in Kuching, Borneo, have been tragically killed.
“Neil Dalton and Aidan Brunger were on a six-week work placement, along with five other medical students, to put the skills they had learnt during their time here at the university into practice.
“This has come as a huge shock to us all and our thoughts are with their families and friends at this very difficult time.
“Two of our members of staff are flying out to Kuching as soon as possible and we are working closely with the British high commissioner to support the other students and to co- ordinate their return to the UK.”
Newcastle University has been sending medical students to Borneo for at least 40 years, a spokesman said, with all placements risk assessed before they were approved.
Professor Jane Calvert, dean of undergraduate studies at the medical school, paid tribute to Mr Dalton and Mr Brunger, saying that they were “excellent” and “highly committed” students who were doing well at their studies.
She said: “They were doing what thousands of medical students do every year – they were on an elective to experience clinical practice in a different setting, to learn from that and enhance their practice when they came back.
“They were well known by the programme director and teachers on the course, and we are all so shocked and saddened.
“They were excellent students; they were doing really well with their studies. They were highly committed and coming back next year to work as doctors.
“Aidan was aspiring to do some medical research on his return, Neil was going straight into his final year. It’s such a tragic thing to occur.”
Prof Calvert said she had been to Kuching herself earlier this year and was particularly shocked that such a crime would have happened. She said: “I don’t think it related to the fact the students were in this particular location. It was just a very, very unfortunate occurrence.
“For all our students going on elective, all the risks are looked at and we’re very careful not to let them go to places that are known to be of high risk.
“Where they were working is a very nice place.”
However, overseas medical students based at Sarawak General Hospital had already been warned to be on their guard earlier this week after two Irish interns were attacked and injured during a bar brawl.
Michael Smile, adjunct professor of medicine, yesterday warned students working in the area not to go out after midnight.
Writing on a Facebook page called ‘Elective Students of Sarawak General Hospital’, he said: “May I caution other students who might be venturing out late at night, particularly to night spots, to be very careful.”
He added: “Do not get into an argument with any locals and if provoked do not respond other than to apologise even if you think you are in the right.
“Do not stare or look at people drinking in bars or nightclubs in disapproval when they seem loud, unruly. They might take offence. Pay up and leave quietly: you do not want to be in such a place.”
He said that students should stay in a group if possible and not be out past midnight.
Last night, friends and colleagues of the two students paid tribute on Facebook and Twitter. Kasper Hermansen posted: “It’s terrible – such a tragedy. They were some cool guys. My thoughts are with their families.”
Natasha Hussain wrote: “We are so deeply saddened to hear this news. It reached a couple of us in Sheffield today and was a huge shock. To their families and to all those who knew or met them, our most sincere condolences, our thoughts and our prayers. We can’t quite believe it and wish it wasn’t true. Such a huge loss that must be unbearable for their loved ones.”