SECURITY INCREASED AROUND TONGAN KING AS LEADERSHIP BATTLE LOOMS

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (November 2, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---Armed members of Tonga's palace guard have blocked off part of the kingdom's capital of Nuku'alofa amid growing alarm over the health of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV and a possible succession battle, local observers said Friday.

Pro-democracy movement leader and Member of Parliament ‘Akilisi Pohiva told AFP the roads had been blocked off.

"There is uncertainty and confusion," he said. "There is a leadership crisis in the country... We really don't know what is going on."

A weakened Tupou, 82, last weekend returned from heart treatment in New Zealand while his successor Crown Prince Tupouto’a battles with his sister, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, for control.

On Thursday the king appeared in a wheelchair, barely audible and with his hands shaking, formally to close the Legislative Assembly he controls.

In an unusual self-penned speech, Tupou caused confusion in the Assembly by saying Tonga needed 4,000 Chinese and adding that he wanted the kingdom to manufacture shark nets for the United States.

Pohiva said it was a shocking and unbelievable speech.

"He is not going to last much longer," Pohiva said.

Another commoner member, Teisana Fuko, was shocked by what he saw.

"He was wheel chaired in. He looked very aged, compared to the other years. I don't think he will last that long."

The Tongan Government last month denied that the king was near death while in Auckland, saying he had suffered complications due to a change in medication for heart treatment.

They claimed he had been well enough to go shopping in Auckland and to attend church.

However, palace sources painted a different picture of what was going on.

The king returned but did not go to his normal private residency at Fua'amotu at the southern end of Tongatapu Island. Instead he was taken to the wooden Royal Palace on the seafront in the capital of Nuku'alofa because it is close to the hospital.

His armed palace guard has blocked off wide areas around the palace, ostensibly to keep the noise down around the king. This has never happened before in Tonga, nor has he ever before attended the Legislative Assembly in a wheelchair.

The kingdom has been deeply shocked by the loss of millions of dollars in a scheme organized by the king's American court jester, Jesse Bogdonoff, whose investments in life insurance of terminally ill Americans were approved by the king himself.

News that the kingdom had lost in excess of 20 million U.S. dollars in the scheme came while the king was in Auckland and Pilolevu was regent. She immediately required the resignation of two ministers, Deputy Prime Minister Tevita Tupou (an ally of the crown prince) and former Finance Minister Tutoatasi Fakafanua. She then appointed Police Minister Clive Edwards deputy prime minister.

Last weekend, with the return of the king, Edwards lost his deputy prime ministership, which was given to a close friend of the king, Cecil Cocker.

The king's second son, Prime Minister Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, has kept out of the way of the recent political maneuverings.

He is second behind the crown prince in succession to the throne, and a strong supporter of his brother over his sister.

Following the formal closure of the assembly, the New Zealand High Commission hosted a social function Thursday night. Sources who were present said an obviously emotional Crown Prince attended, loudly pointing out that he had no claims on the throne and wanted his brother to be king.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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