U.S. CITES TONGA AS POTENTIAL NEST FOR TERRORISTS

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (Radio Australia, Jan.3) - United States authorities have repeated concerns that islands in the Pacific could be used by terrorists to launch attacks.

The tiny island Kingdom of Tonga has been singled out as an example of potential involvement with the Al Qaeda terrorist group, through its shipping services.

US intelligence officers claim many vessels registered with governments, like Tonga, may be used by the terrorist group to ship their weapons of destruction.

In September, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a . cell of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists were arrested on a Tongan-registered ship in Italy.

It was the second alleged terrorist link to Tonga, and came despite assurances earlier last year by the Pacific kingdom that it had closed its controversial ship registry.

Radio Australia now reports that the Tongan Government has closed the registry.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Italian officials in September said 15 Pakistani men on the ship Sara had been arrested on suspicion of plotting a terrorist strike in Europe.

Early last year, a Tongan registered ship, Karine A was boarded by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea who captured 50 tons of Iranian weapons that Israel said were en route to the Palestinian Authority.

Tongan officials have said there were 185 ships, mostly in the Middle East, flying their flag last year.

In 2000 a Greek businessman Pelopidas Papadopoulos, who described himself as a director of Axion Services Ltd of Piraeus, visited Nuku'alofa and won approval to set up and operate an "Open Ships Register for Tonga," the Herald reported.

Details of the financial arrangements between Axion and its Tonga International Registry of Ships (TIRS) and the Tongan government were not disclosed.

On June 5 a Tongan government statement said TIRS was to be closed.

A chairman of a cabinet committee, Noble Fielakepa, said in September the government had acted because it was concerned about damage to the kingdom's reputation from incidents involving Tongan-registered ships carrying weapons and illegal immigrants, according to the Herald.

January 3, 2003

The Sydney Morning Herald contributed to this report.

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

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