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Sevele on official visit

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, May 20, 2009) – The Tongan Prime Minister's first official visit to New Zealand was unusual in that the welcoming ceremony did not take place when he arrived in Wellington on May 13 but just before he left Wellington yesterday afternoon, May 19.

The rescheduling of the welcome was due to the very busy schedule of the new Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Hon. John Key.

The occasion was a historical one, because it was the first time for Mr Key to welcome a foreign leader to the New Zealand Parliament "the Beehive", and it was also the first time for a such a welcome ceremony to be extended to a Tongan Prime Minister.

The weather fit the occasion and there was sunshine when the Tongan party was welcomed by Mrs Rose White, kaumatua to parliament, at the beginning of a Maori ceremonial welcome.

A conch shell was sounded three times, before a Maori warrior advanced towards Dr Sevele and party, flourishing a fighting staff. After a series of movements the warrior laid down the 'Rakau Tapu', a small branch, the sacred symbol of peace, on the ground in front of the Dr Sevele, who then picked up the symbol of peace, acknowledging the warrior by lifting the branch to eye level.

The warrior then performed the Whakawatea or cleansing movement, and gave the Whakawaha signal to follow.

The Kapa Haka group begin the final part of the welcome, calling Dr Sevele and his delegation towards the assembled kaumatua (tribal elders of the local region) for the traditional hongi - the gentle pressing of noses, signifying the sharing of the life force, the breath of life. After the hongi with the kaumatua, Dr Sevele was escorted by Mrs White, the kaumatua and the warrior to where they were welcomed by Mr Key.

The New Zealand Prime Minister invited Dr Sevele to the saluting base to take the salute, while the band played the Tongan national anthem, and then Dr Sevele inspected the Guard of Honour. Then the Tongan National Anthem was played again while Dr Sevele saluted the Tongan flag. He introduced Mr Key to his members of his party.

Mr Key then escorted Dr Sevele and party up the main step into Parliament House, and into the Prime Minister's office on the 9th floor.

Following talks between the two Prime Ministers in closed session, they called a Press Conference. The Fijian political upheaval dominated the questions and the Tongan stance on the Fiji upheaval, explained by Dr Sevele, was new to the New Zealand press. Dr Sevele was asked if he sympathised with Fiji, to which Dr Sevele replied he was and that was Tonga's stance, but he also clarified that Tonga does not condone the overthrowing by the military of an elected government.

When Mr Key was asked if he agreed with Dr Sevele, he said that he supported Tonga's stance, and though he did not support the current regime in Fiji but he was very conscious of isolating Fiji, which would have a negative impact on the life of the general public there.

UN peace keeping

Mr Key was also asked about the proposal for New Zealand to pressure the UN not to recruit Fijian soldiers for UN peace keeping duty, instead to replace them with New Zealanders. Mr Key was not very firm in his response other than saying that his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, would lay out the New Zealand position with regards to the UN Peace Keeping Force and Fiji.

When Dr Feleti Sevele was asked in an earlier interview if Tongan soldiers would replace Fijian soldiers on peace keeping duty with the UN, he said that, "Tonga could, but we don't want to. Our policy is not to. If we are asked we have to think about it very carefully. Right now government is not interested in it, we don't want our soldiers to return in a box."

Following the visit to Parliament House Mr Key hosted a luncheon for Dr Feleti Sevele and party, and it was the conclusion of the first official visit to New Zealand by the Tongan Prime Minister.

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