SOLOMONS WON'T BACK DOWN IN AUSTRALIA TIFF

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By Ofani Eremae

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Solomon Star, Sept. 14) – Australia yesterday responded to the expulsion of its top diplomat by closing its doors to the Solomons’ politicians.

As of midnight last night, Solomon Islands members of parliament will not be issued with entry visas to Australia.

Those already issued with diplomatic or official visas are to have theirs cancelled.

The decision was taken after Prime Minister Sogavare refused to back away from his decision to expel high commissioner Patrick Cole.

Mr Sogavare yesterday told Australian envoy David Ritchie, sent over to deliver Canberra’s message, that he’s standing by his decision.

Mr Ritchie refused to answer questions from journalists after his 40-minute audience with Mr Sogavare and Foreign Affairs Minister Patteson Oti.

But Mr Oti yesterday revealed to journalists why the Government decided to expel Mr Cole.

He claimed Mr Cole was trying to stop the Commission of Inquiry that the Solomons government established into the April riots.

"We have information that Mr Cole was rallying to stop external funding for the Commission of Inquiry. This is a serious thing for any diplomat to do," Mr Oti said.

Mr Sogavare on Monday rang up his Australian counterpart asking him to recall Mr Cole. When Mr Howard refused, he declared Mr Cole persona non grata.

Mr Oti said the Government had made its decision and it must stand by it.

"Australia has the right to do whatever it wants," he said. "But we will not give in to them in spite of their decision to cancel our visas. As I’ve said, we are prepared to take on any consequences for our action."

Asked whether the visa restriction issue would affect Prime Minister Sogavare’s scheduled trip to New York next week, Mr Oti said there were other routes to travel.

Australian foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer last night told Sky News nothing more could be done to convince the Solomons government to change its mind on the expulsion. But he said restricting visas to the country’s politicians would give them something to reflect on.

Australian Prime Minister Mr Howard on Tuesday told Mr Sogavare that there would be consequences for him and his government as a result of his action. He said Australia would review its bilateral relations with Solomon Islands and will announce any measures in due course.

Mr Cole, who was in the country since 2003, is expected to leave the country shortly.

September 15, 2006

Solomon Star: http://www.solomonstarnews.com/

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