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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (August 20, 2002 - Oceania Flash)---Although the Melanesian Arts Festival was officially opened on Monday in Port Vila, delegations from three member countries failed to make it to Vanuatu, the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reports.

The Melanesian Arts Festival is a cultural presentation of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a sub-regional political organization that groups Fiji, New Caledonia's pro-independence party FLNKS, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The MSG was established in 1988 at the initiative of the late Vanuatu Prime Minister Father Walter Lini.

The first Melanesian Arts Festival took place on Espiritu Santo Island (northern Vanuatu) in 1991.

New Caledonia has sent a strong delegation to the neighboring host country, but this year's festival apparently is only going to feature artists from the French territory and Vanuatu.

Les Nouvelles reports that because of the absence of three of the five scheduled participating delegations, the whole program has had to be totally revised.

"No official reason was given for this absence," Les Nouvelles remarks, adding that unnamed sources were mentioning "differences within the MSG."

The last summit of MSG leaders took place in New Caledonia during July of last year. At that time, meetings took place both in the capital of Nouméa and on the Loyalty Island of Ouvéa.

Roch Wamytan, then the President of the pro-independence FLNKS, became MSG Chairman for two years.

On this occasion, New Caledonia authorities declared that they wanted New Caledonia to become a full member of the MSG.

A controversy then followed over which flag -- the French flag or FLNKS's -- should be used at the 14th summit's venue.

Finally, a consensus was reached, whereby the MSG summit was "invited by the government of New Caledonia in agreement with the FLNKS and with the assistance of the French State."

It was decided that the French flag would be placed alongside those of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

However, some component parties of the FLNKS umbrella, including Palika (headed by New Caledonia's Vice President Dewei Gorodey) and LKS, were less than happy with the last summit's arrangements.

"We are official. We have signed the Nouméa Accord. There is no reason why our flag should be hidden," Gorodey said at the time.

"At each previous summit, the FLNKS flag was raised next to the MSG member countries’ flags. And here, in Kanaky, it could not be raised at the entrance of the Méridien Hotel," PALIKA said in a statement.

The French territory's President Pierre Frogier, citing a "new era" in the relations between New Caledonia and its Melanesian neighbors, also had asked during the MSG meeting for New Caledonia to be integrated into the sub-regional organization, "a concept set out in the Nouméa Accord."

The pact was signed in 1998 by the pro-independence FLNKS, the anti-independence RPCR (Rally for New Caledonia within the French Republic) and the French metropolitan government.

French High Commissioner (France's representative in New Caledonia) Thierry Lataste told the Melanesian leaders their visit would be "an opportunity to know you neighbor and appreciate the work done here for the past thirteen years, as well as the ambition and courage of those who signed the Nouméa Accord."

He also made a direct call for the French territory of New Caledonia to be considered as a future member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

Last year's MSG summit also coincided with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the governments of France, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, which paved the way for further cooperation.

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