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By Jack Metta The National, Papua New Guinea

NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (October 24, 2000 - PINA Nius Online)---Tragedy struck hours before the Festival of Pacific Arts was due to open here when a Samoan participant collapsed and died.

The man, an artist aged about 55, collapsed while rehearsing for the official opening ceremony, which was scheduled for last night, but postponed because of bad weather in this French territory.

Attempts by colleagues and paramedics, who arrived shortly after he collapsed at the nearby field, failed to revive him.

Scores of artists and delegates from New Zealand, Niue and Papua New Guinea looked on in shock as his body was taken to a nearby hospital.

Among the first at the scene, and forming a line of honor were members of PNG's 96-member team. PNG is represented by dancers, performing artists and craftsmen from New Ireland, Morobe and West New Britain provinces.

The group arrived late Friday night aboard a chartered Air Niugini Airbus, to an unexpected but a pleasant welcome from the Kanak people of South New Caledonia at Nouméa's Tontouta International Airport.

Kanak Chief Clement Paita, in his welcoming speech, offered his people's warm welcome to the PNG delegation, saying Papua New Guineans are at home in New Caledonia as they share many common ties, including that of being Melanesian.

The PNG delegation, headed by National Cultural Commission chairman Dr. Jacob Simet, is among the most popular and noisiest group in town, with Kundu beats, songs and dance reverberating against the backdrop of Nouméa Harbor and hills.

The PNG group is comprised of dancers, weavers, carvers, craftsmen and performing artists from Toukai in New Ireland, the Kitten group from Morobe and the Mugger group from West New Britain.

Twenty-seven nations and territories will bring New Caledonia alive with displays of their culture and craftsmanship for the next two weeks beginning today, weather permitting.

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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (October 23, 2000 – Oceania Flash/SPC)---French government Secretary of State for Overseas Administrations, Christian Paul, said the Festival of Pacific Arts being hosted by New Caledonia is an important step for the French territory.

Paul arrived in New Caledonia on Monday as part of a Pacific familiarization tour.

Speaking at an informal press conference, Paul said the fact that New Caledonia was hosting this regional cultural event was "important."

"I think the Pacific Arts Festival is an important moment for New Caledonia in terms of exchange, sharing between cultures that are close and different at the same time. They all have their particularities and their strengths and I think those who have organized this Festival wanted it to be very open, a moment of cultural communion, merger, between the men and women who will spend some time here in New Caledonia," he said.

"This is a time when the whole Pacific will have its eyes on Nouméa," he said. "The Festival will then go to other parts of the Pacific. It is important that it takes place here today."

Paul's three-day visit in New Caledonia (the first since his appointment) coincides with the official opening of the 8th Festival of Pacific Arts, where he will deliver a speech.

The secretary is also to meet a wide range of officials from the French territory's political spectrum, including the pro-independence FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front) and the anti-independence RPCR (Rally for New Caledonia within the French Republic).

"I have chosen to visit New Caledonia first. What is happening here is very important for (French Prime Minister) Lionel Jospin's government. For the past 10 years, the French government has worked a lot with New Caledonians towards the return of peace and that this process remains an ongoing one," he said.

"So I come here with a spirit of dialogue, and to keep maintaining this dialog. That is the purpose of my visit: a better understanding, better knowledge and feeding the dialog.

"I think one cannot understand New Caledonia from Paris. One can only understand it from here, among the men and women who live here."

After civil unrest in the early 1980s, a document called the "Matignon Accords" was signed between FLNKS and RPCR leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Jacques Lafleur, enabling a peace process to take place in the French territory.

Tjibaou was murdered in 1989 by a pro-independence hard liner for signing the agreement.

Paul's program in New Caledonia includes a visit to the late Tjibaou's home village of Tiendanite (east coast), where he is to pay respects at the slain Kanak leader's grave.

FLNKS and RPCR leaders, Roch Wamytan and Jacques Lafleur, signed in May 1998 the "Nouméa Accord" with French Prime minister Lionel Jospin.

That agreement granted wider autonomy to New Caledonia, a gradual transfer of powers from metropolitan France to local authorities, and a possible referendum on independence within "15 to 20 years" from the signing date.

Paul also will tour New Caledonia's Southern, Northern and Loyalty Islands provinces.

In the Northern province, he will meet the management of one of New Caledonia's major nickel companies, SMSP (Société Minière du Sud Pacifique).

SMSP, in a joint venture with Canadian nickel giant Falconbridge, plans to build a new mining complex and processing plant, possibly by the end of 2002.

During his stay in New Caledonia, Paul also will meet with Australian Culture Minister Peter McGauran, who is in the French territory to attend the Festival of Pacific Arts.

Paul was appointed in late August. He replaced Jean-Jack Queyranne, who was promoted to a higher position within the French government as part of a ministerial reshuffle by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Later in the week, Paul is to visit France's two other Pacific territories, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia.

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