SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, Feb. 24) - Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase says he is "extremely excited" at the prospect of meeting French President Jacques Chirac, who is due to visit French Polynesia and other Pacific nations at the end of July.

"We have been informed there would be an opportunity for person-to-person meetings with President Chirac. I am extremely excited about that. I'm looking forward to meeting the great man, leader of a great country and of course I'm looking forward to this virtual summit between him and leaders of the Pacific Island countries. Such a meeting can only augur well for the Pacific region," Qarase said on Sunday.

The announcement coincides with the visit of French Polynesian President Gaston Flosse, who is in Fiji to deliver 344 tons of food supplies, fresh bottled water and 120 100-litre water tanks to the cyclone-stricken Fiji islands of Vanua Levu (North) and Cicia (Southeast).

The total value of the donation is over US$500,000, in the name of "Pacific "solidarity with the Pacific peoples", Flosse said.

On January 14, cyclone Ami killed fourteen people and caused major damage to these islands.

The supplies were to reach Vanua Levu on Monday on board French Polynesia's territorial ship, the Tahiti Nui.

Qarase said on Sunday such a relief, which came after an "overwhelming response" from major donors such as Australia, New Zealand, France, the United states, Japan, China or the European Union, was "particularly special" since it came from another Pacific island country.

"To receive such a huge donation from them is something we are especially grateful for," he said.

Qarase said talks with Flosse this week could focus on ways to work out a better regional response and "capability" in times of natural disasters.

The Tahiti Nui will on Tuesday set sail to Cicia and then head to the Solomon Islands, to unload further supplies for the populations of Tikopia and Anuta islands, which were badly damaged by cyclone Zoe on December 29.

Speaking during a function on Sunday onboard the Tahiti Nui, Qarase told local media he had accepted Flosse's invitation to go to Tahiti in July, where Chirac is expected to meet around fifteen Pacific islands leaders to discuss future prospects of French aid in the Pacific region.

Flosse arrived in Fiji on Saturday for a four-day official visit.

He is to hold official talks on Monday with Qarase and Fiji's President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

Flosse is leading a 17-strong delegation that includes personnel from his office and a strong media contingent.

He will leave Fiji on Tuesday, February 25, on a chartered flight and is expected to stop over in the Cook Islands on his way back to Tahiti.

The French Polynesian Presidential visit comes one month after vice-president Edouard Fritch, toured the South Pacific, including Fiji and the Solomon Islands, earlier this month.

While meeting heads of the region's governments, he then stressed Pape'ete's will to strengthen its ties with its Pacific island "brothers, sisters and cousins".

Fritch also invited regional leaders to visit Tahiti in July this year, where French President Jacques Chirac is scheduled to stop for three days as part of a Pacific tour.

Fritch said it would be an opportunity for Chirac to meet Pacific leaders and discuss avenues and "future orientations" for French aid in the region.

Last year, invoking "Polynesian solidarity", French Polynesia's government also sent teams of builders and construction material to the island of Vava'u (Tonga), which was struck by cyclone Waka on January 1, 2002.

"For too long, we have been absent from the Pacific. You know I am very close to the French President. He is a friend of the Pacific and we are lucky enough to have him in the Pacific in July ... And I want to take this opportunity to sensitize him on this region's issues."

At the end of July, Chirac is scheduled to visit Australia, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

"He would have liked also to visit a Pacific Island country like Fiji. Unfortunately, his busy schedule does not allow him to stay away from Paris more than a week. So it seemed more practical to invite Pacific leaders in French Polynesia when he is there," Flosse said.

Flosse, who was a member of the Chirac-led French government line-up between 1986 and 1988 and in charge of Pacific affairs, believes in the past few years, France has "not had a real policy in the Pacific" and that it should now dedicate more funds to this region.

"Now it's time France was more present in this region, especially thorough its territories".

February 25, 2003

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