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Monday, October 23, 2006

Australian PM arrives at summit amid condemnation of police raid

NADI (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard has arrived in Fiji to a hostile reception from some Pacific leaders as a bitter row between Canberra and two of its neighbours reached boiling point.

Howard, the leader of the region's richest and most powerful nation, flew into the eye of a diplomatic storm Monday as he arrived for a summit of leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum that begins here Tuesday.

The escalating war of words between Australia and the impoverished Solomons Islands and Papua New Guinea has thrown the future of a crucial Australian-led assistance mission in the troubled Solomons into question.

The fate of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) will top the agenda when the 16 heads of government meet for talks, with some Pacific nations accusing Australia of being an "arrogant" bully.

Sir Michael Somare, prime minister of Papua New Guinea, lashed out at Canberra accusing it of being arrogant and insulting to Pacific leaders.

"I think this is typical of the arrogant attitude of your people, your leaders treating the people of the region with contempt," he told Australian reporters in Nadi.

Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has threatened to kick out the Australians after relations between the two countries soured over Canberra's attempts to extradite Sogavare's Attorney-General Julian Moti on child sex charges.

Relations took another turn for the worse Friday after Australian police seconded to the Solomons force and others working for RAMSI -- which comes under the Pacific Island Forum's umbrella -- raided Sogovare's office in connection with the Moti investigation.

Four regional leaders from Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons itself -- who make up the Melanesian Spearhead Group of countries -- on Monday described the raid as an attack on the Solomon Islands sovereignty.

"These actions are certainly a serious violation of Solomon Islands territorial sovereignty and integrity, and are inconsistent with the
United Nations charter on the respect for the principles of sovereignty," the leaders said.

But Howard, who had earlier Monday dismissed fears that the Pacific summit would be overshadowed by the diplomatic row, denied Australia had anything to do with the raid, which happened while Sogavare was in Fiji.

"We haven't violated anyone's sovereignty and any suggestion Australia had anything to do with that raid is totally wrong," Howard said after arriving in Nadi.

"A number of the police come from Australia including the police commissioner but he's acting as the head of the Solomon Islands' police force," he told reporters.

RAMSI grew out of an Australian-led armed intervenion to end five years of bloody ethnic strife in the Solomon Islands in mid-2003.

Amid the worsening relations with Canberra, Sogavare recently threatened to throw out about 200 Australian troops and police and another 200 advisors.

Both Howard and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said RAMSI would collapse without Australia, which provides the great bulk of its personnel and finance.

"It has to be remembered that Australia has put in around a quarter of a billion (Australian) dollars a year in Solomon Islands, of which only 20 to 30 million is bilateral aid, so the regional mission is very largely financed by Australia," Clark said.

Fiji's Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, who will chair the leaders' talks Tuesday, said he was confident they would produce an outcome which would allow RAMSI to continue.

The diplomatic row on Monday prompted Australia to advise its citizens to think twice before travelling to the Solomon Islands, warning of potential civil unrest and political tensions.

The dispute broke into the open last month when Canberra's ambassador was expelled from the Solomons.

It escalated when Australia tried to extradite Moti, a close friend of Sogavare, from Papua New Guinea at the beginning of this month on charges Sogavare claimed were politically motivated.

Canberra cut off ministerial relations with Papua New Guinea when a clandestine PNG military flight returned Moti to the Solomon Islands, allowing him to escape the extradition proceedings.

The Pacific Islands Forum groups Australia, New Zealand and 14 island countries. Plans to strenghten regional coordination and economic cooperation have been overshadowed by the crisis in relations between Australia and its two neighbours.

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