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CANBERRA, Australia (January 8, 1998 - PACNEWS/Radio Australia)---The prolonged drought in Papua New Guinea, with more than one million people facing a severe food shortage, has brought calls for a major international relief effort.

A drought assessment report, just compiled by the Australian aid agency AusAID, warns that the worst of the PNG famine is yet to come, with the situation remaining critical until at least April.

The report is of grave concern to the Australian government, which is spending more than $Aus1 million ($US 641,000) a week on food relief in addition to deploying Defense Force transport aircraft and helicopters to PNG.

Some officials believe that given the magnitude of the crisis, it is beyond the capacity of Australia and PNG to quickly deliver food and drinking water to the growing number of people affected.

The Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Kathy Sullivan, says Australia is committed to doing whatever it takes to assist PNG, but it was urgent that the international community increase its assistance. Sullivan said Australia had been urging greater international assistance, but that it was up to the PNG government to make its own requests for international aid. So far, limited aid has come mainly from New Zealand, Japan, Britain and the United States.

Sullivan Wednesday urged Australians to contribute to appeals for aid for the PNG drought victims being run by Roman Catholic churches and the Returned Services League (RSL).

The public's response to the appeals have dwindled since late last year when Australian television stations showed videotapes of PNG Prime Minister Bill Skate admitting to illegal and corrupt practices.

The appeals have also suffered from reports of poor administration in the distribution of emergency relief supplies and the looting of food trucks.

Meantime, Radio Australia’s Sean Dorney reports that Papua New Guinea's Minister for Disaster Management, Simon Kaumi, has objected strongly to what he calls premature and unfounded comments in the drought assessment, particularly those by co-author Dr. Mike Bourke.

Dorney says:

"Dr. Bourke has been heavily involved in the drought assessment for months and the latest report he's co-authored says more than one million Papua New Guineans are now in serious need. But it is his reported comments criticizing how the PNG Government bought food but provided no money for it to be distributed beyond the towns that have angered the Disaster Management Minister, Simon Kaumi.

"Mr. Kaumi claims Dr. Bourke has no right to comment about the distribution of funds in PNG as this is an internal matter.

"While he claims he's had a letter of apology from the Australian High Commissioner, his Prime Minister, Bill Skate, apparently agrees with Dr. Bourke.

Mr. Skate says he's acted to ensure mistakes made so far in delivering food aren't repeated."

Meantime, the Prime Minister, in efforts to address the transportation problems, has directed the Provincial Affairs Department to assume responsibility for transport funding, which, until; this week, had been under the control of the Finance Department.

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