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NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, July 7) – News of the sudden death of Tonga's "People's Prince" Prince Tu'ipelehake (56) and Princess Kaimana (46) in a car accident on a California highway yesterday, has shocked Tongans as the news slowly spread in the kingdom today.

Only a few days ago, on July 4, Prince Tu'ipelehake and his wife Princess Kaimana posed happily with the King of Tonga in a family photograph taken at the Royal Palace during the monarch's 88th birthday celebrations. The prince is a nephew of the king.

Later that day the royal couple boarded a plane bound for San Francisco. There, the Prince who was a leading figure in Tonga's movement for political reform, was to have meetings with the Tongan communities in the USA. It was the final stage of ongoing consultations or "Talanoa" dialogue with the Tongan people, under a committee he chaired, the National Committee for Political Reform (NCPR).

Although no official announcement had been made in Tonga, Tongans at home first heard from relatives in the San Francisco area, news of the tragedy that occurred at around 9 pm (Tonga time 5 pm Thursday July 6) at Menlo Park, California, about 50 kilometres south of San Francisco.

A Tongan woman who lives in California believed that the Prince and the Princess were to pick up his sister Princess Mele Siu'ilikutapu and take her out for dinner, "but when they arrived at her home Princess Siu'ilikutapu said she was feeling tired and would rather have a rest, so they left and they were on their way out for dinner," said the woman.

The royal couple with their driver Vinisia Hefa were travelling in a red Ford Explorer.

According to a report in the Bay City News, a California Highway Patrol Officer Ricky Franklin reported that about 9pm on northbound US Highway 101 north of Willow Road, a white Ford Mustang, driven by an 18-year-old woman, was travelling "at a reckless, high rate of speed," and came up behind another vehicle, and attempted to pass it on the right.

Franklin said that as the driver of the Mustang turned to pass the vehicle, the Mustang struck the driver's side of another vehicle, a red 1998 Ford Explorer, causing its driver to lose control to the right of the highway. The Explorer then overturned "an unknown number of times before coming to rest on its roof on the right hand shoulder," said Officer Franklin.

San Mateo County coroner Robert Foucrault confirmed Friday (Tongan time) that two members of the Tongan royal family died in the crash, but he would not release their names until the Tongan government made an official announcement. The driver of the red Ford Explorer carrying the two also was killed, according to Patrol Officer Franklin.

The driver of the white Ford Mustang, Edith Delgado was not injured and she was jailed on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter and engaging in a speed contest, Officer Franklin said.

As of Friday evening, there had been no official announcement from either the Tongan government or the Palace Office, but it is expected that the bodies of the deceased may be flown back to Tonga next week.

The death of Prince Tu'ipelehake is a setback for the NCPR often referred to as the "Tu'ipelehake committee", the formation of which was approved by parliament on October 24, 2005. The NCPR began its Talanoa meetings with the people on January 30, and after covering the Tonga islands by May, went on to have Talanoa meetings in New Zealand and Australia in June.

In the USA Prince Tu'ipekehake had planned a full schedule of Talanoa. After arriving in San Francisco on July 4, his schedule included:

Hilo to Honolulu and return to Tonga.

The NCPR was expected to present their final report to the king in August, and then present the report to parliament before September 30.

The Prince's work to reform Tonga's political system was respected by other countries in the region, who supported the committee's work with foreign aid.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Rt. Hon Winston Peters said in a statement of condolence today that the Prince had pursued his goal, "with sensitivity and perception, mixed with a strong determination to achieve progress.

"The importance he placed on gathering the views of all Tongan people on the national political system was clear to see. It is a tragedy that his travel to the United States in pursuit of this goal led to his death…The strong foundation for discussion and dialogue that has been established will be a lasting legacy bequeathed to all Tongans," he said.

Prince Tu'ipelehake, the eldest son of the King's brother, and a grandson of the late Queen Salote, was born on October 7, 1950, and was known then as Prince 'Uluvalu Ngu Takeivulai Tuku’aho. He married Kaimana Hauoli ‘o Kuini Aleamotu’a on November 29, 1998, and succeeded his father as the 6th Fatafehi Tu'i Pelehake on April 17, 1999.

Prince Tu'ipelehake attended the University of Auckland and later a Military Academy in India. He later joined very briefly the Civil Service, first the Tonga Defence Service, then the Ministry of Lands, and the Ministry of Labour and Commerce. He entered politics and became a Noble's Representatives to the Tongan Parliament a seat that he has held during the past few years.

Prince Tu'ipelehake became known recently as "the People's Prince" after leading a protest march to the Palace, during a civil service national strike last year, and was actively involved in finding a solution to the strike.

Princess Kaimana Hauoli 'o Kuini Aleamotu'a was born on March 13, 1960, the eldest daughter of the late Noble Fielakepa and Mele Tunakaimanu Aleamotu’a.

Kaimana attended Tonga High School and St Cuthbert’s College in New Zealand, continuing to the University of Queensland, Australia, where she received a Bachelor of Arts, and later a Master of Arts degree in Foreign Affairs from the Australian National University.

Kaimana worked with the Tongan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was later posted as a counselor at the Tongan High Commission in London.

The couple did not have any children.

July 10, 2006

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