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By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, April 14, 2005) – Papua New Guinea's Prime minister Michael Somare today embarked on a Melanesian tour that will include the independent countries of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, as well as the neighboring French Pacific territory of New Caledonia.

In a release, Sir Michael's office said the main purpose of the tour was to "strengthen the cordial relationship enjoyed by the Melanesian group of countries," especially at the level of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

The MSG includes Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon islands, Fiji and New Caledonia's pro-independence FLNKS party.

En route to New Caledonia onboard a private chartered plane, the PNG leader will stop in Honiara and Port Vila to meet his counterparts, Solomons Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza and Vanuatu Prime Minister Ham Lini.

Papua New Guinea is this year playing host to two major regional events: the MSG leaders' summit, in Goroka in August and late September the 16-member Pacific Island Forum Leaders Summit in Port Moresby.

New Caledonia (an observer at the Forum since 1999), has started assessing the possible benefits of joining the Forum's Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement, the PICTA, which came into force last year and puts in place a free trade zone between Forum member countries.

In September, Papua New Guinea is celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of its independence.

While in New Caledonia, Sir Michael will be made "Doctor Honoris Causa" by the local University of New Caledonia (UNC), in recognition of his leadership in Pacific affairs for the past thirty years.

On the political level, he is also scheduled to hold talks with New Caledonia's President Marie-Noëlle Thémereau, France's High Commissioner Daniel Constantin, Congress (Parliament) Speaker Harold Martin, Northern Province President Paul Néaoutyine.

Néaoutyine also heads a major component of the pro-independence FLNKS movement.

The FLNKS is the only non-state member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG, which brings together Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon islands).

Somare is also to meet member of New Caledonia's Customary Senate, the equivalent of a Great Council of Chiefs.

On Saturday, he is also to travel to the Eastern Coast of New Caledonia's main island (the Grande Terre), where he is to lay a wreath on the grave of slain Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, in the small village of Tiendanite and meet with the village elders and chiefs.

Tjibaou was murdered by one hardliner within his own pro-independence movement, one year after he had signed the Matignon peace Accords, in 1988, with then anti-independence leader Jacques Lafleur and the French government.

The Matignon Accords allowed civil peace to return to New Caledonia, after a spate of violence bordering civil war in the first half of the 1980s.

The PNG leader is also to meet with the Commander of French Armed Forces in New Caledonia (FANC), Brigadier General Alain Daniel, who last year indicated he wanted to strengthen defence ties with the PNG Defence Forces, mainly by way of joint exercises, troop exchanges and cross-training and maritime surveillance.

Daniel said at the time he was planning to engage in fresh talks with PNG's army officials "and probably sign an agreement similar to the one signed with Fiji" in February 2004, which effectively re-launched defence cooperation between France and Fiji.

The ties had been severed after Fiji's coup in May 2000.

In July 2003, during a "France-Oceania" meeting held in Pape'ete (French Polynesia) French President Jacques Chirac told South Pacific island states leaders in attendance that he had instructed all French military commanders in the Pacific to reinforce cooperation with regional armies.

Sir Michael is due to leave New Caledonia Saturday, back to Port Moresby via Honiara.

April 15, 2005

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