HOWARD TRIES TO COOL ESCALATING MELANESIAN BACKLASH

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SYDNEY, Australia (Australian Broadcasting Corp. Oct. 24) – Australian Prime Minister John Howard has been involved in talks with regional leaders to try to resolve the row between Australia and the Solomon Islands.

The forum's chairman, Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, hopes the standoff will not sideline other pressing forum initiatives.

A group of leaders, including Papua New Guinea's Sir Michael Somare, says Australia needs to respect Pacific nations' sovereignty and stop treating Pacific leaders with arrogance and contempt.

The leaders are attending the official opening ceremony before heading into the forum retreat.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, yesterday lashed out at Australia's leaders, branding them arrogant and insulting ahead of tomorrow's Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji.

The leaders of PNG and Vanuatu today joined the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, in condemning Australian police involvement in a raid on his office last week.

Howard has dismissed suggestions Australia was involved in the raid.

Sir Michael says the raid was an affront to another country's sovereign rights and showed disrespect to Australia's pacific neighbours.

He also attacked a decision barring him from visiting Australia because of PNG's involvement in the Julian Moti affair.

Australia's relations with PNG and the Solomon Islands have become strained over failed attempts to extradite Moti, the Solomons attorney-general designate, on child sex charges.

"It's a real insult to me personally and someone who has known Australian people all these years and the working rapport and relations we have built," Sir Michael said. "I think this is typical of the arrogant attitude of your people, your leaders treating the people of the region with contempt."

But Mr Howard says they have got it wrong.

"We haven't violated anybody's sovereignty and any suggestion that Australia had anything to do with that raid is wrong," he said.

Mr Howard says the media have also made mistakes.

"I keep seeing these news reports saying 'Australian police'," he said. "Sure, a number of the police come from Australia, including the Police Commissioner, but he's acting as the head of the Solomon Islands police force. He's under contract to the Government of the Solomon Islands. He doesn't take any instructions from me or from any officials in Australia, so any suggestion that this was an action in which Australia was involved in any way is totally wrong."

Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomons have become strained over failed attempts to extradite Solomons attorney-general designate Julian Moti on child sex charges.

Mr Sogavare has threatened to throw Australians and RAMSI [Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands] out of his country over the charges, which he describes as "politically-motivated".

But Mr Howard has rejected the threats, saying such actions would have serious implications for the rest of the Pacific.

The Australian Prime Minister says RAMSI is valuable to the Solomons.

"It would be a great tragedy for the people of the Solomon Islands if RAMSI were undermined because it offers them hope," he said. "And they need hope, they need law and order, they need stability, they need economic help and they need a hope for the future, and that's what RAMSI offers them."

Mr Howard will tell the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji that Australia remains committed to its aid program in the Pacific, including the regional assistance mission (RAMSI) to the Solomons, in return for improved standards of governance and accountability.

ABC News Online: http://www.abc.net.au/news/ © 2006 ABC. All Rights Reserved

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