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MELBOURNE, Australia (Nov. 4, 2002 – Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat)---The Kiribati opposition leader is claiming the Chinese Embassy in the country is engaging in checkbook diplomacy in a bid to encourage voters to support the government of President Teburoro Tito, but an embassy official denied that any money has been given to support political campaigns.

Brian Orme, a spokesman for opposition leader Dr. Harry Tong, claims Chinese Embassy officials have accompanied a number of government ministers to outer islands and distributed gifts to islanders in an attempt to win votes.

The general election is less than a month away. Tito is being challenged in his own seat of South Tarawa by former President Ieremia Tabai.

Recently, the police announced they would seize an election pamphlet put out by Tong because they say it misused the national flag. But Orme claims the Chinese are taking a role in the election.

"They're definitely interfering in our domestic affairs now," Orme said. "There were very large contributions going out to ministers and we have evidence of this. They're being very generous in their gifts to our island societies and communities and this is usually done at the same time as a ministerial tour is going on."

As proof, Orme said they have an actual check that was signed by the Chinese ambassador to a local cooperative and official correspondence from a minister asking for "five grand."

"It doesn't say what for…I'm going to have to speculate why an embassy is giving one of our ministers $5,000 using a local cooperative as a conduit."

Orme said the Chinese have a missile-tracking station in Tarawa and Tong has said in parliament that when he's in a position to do something about it, he will close the tracking station down.

Orme said the station reportedly monitors the U.S. missile-tracking site in Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands.

"Dr. Tong doesn't believe that this is in the interest of Kiribati to have a tracking station here, which would make us a potential target, if there was ever any conflict between China and the U.S.," Orme said.

Orme's claims are vigorously disputed by the Chinese Embassy. The deputy head of mission, a Mr. Li, says they do give money to community groups for development purposes, not for any political reason.

"Assistance is for the whole community, not for one particular person," Li said. "Not for one particular individual person. This package donation is for helping those people who need it."

Li said there are four projects: soccer and volleyball team uniforms, a damaged seawall, fixing a fence and helping a primary school.

Li said he didn’t know why Tong was making the accusations about political contributions and that he "should respect the facts."

Li said mention of the Chinese tracking stations is "an old story. This has nothing to do with the tracking station. With the consent of the government, our tracking station is here. It works for peaceful purposes, only for peaceful purposes."

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

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