ANGRY PNG LANDOWNERS CLOSE HIGHLANDS AIRPORT

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Landowners demand $6.5 million compensation

By Andrew Alphonse PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, Nov. 2, 2010) – In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Tari airport in the Southern Highlands province was forced to close as of yesterday by angry landowners.

The National Airport Corporation (NAC) has advised all airlines not to fly into Tari for the safety of passengers and aircraft from possible landowner reprisals. However, a twin otter plane belonging to Airlines PNG that flew with explosives for Esso Highlands Ltd from Port Moresby into Tari yesterday afternoon was physically confronted by the landowners.

Esso Highlands is the subsidiary company of ExxonMobil, developer of the multi-billion kina PNG liquefied natural gas (LNG) project.

The landowners said the airline did not take heed of the forced closure and warned the pilot not to fly into Tari as of today.

[PIR editor’s note: Exxon Mobil finalized agreements for its US$15 billion liquefied natural gas project earlier this year in Papua New Guinea. The government holds a 17 percent stake in the project and local landowners own three percent. However, according to Radio Australia, landowners claim they have missed out on employment, landowner company contracts, and the government has failed to pay them for their land.]

The National Airport Corporation (NAC) yesterday confirmed the closer of the Tari airport as it cannot guarantee the safety of the travelling public.

The NAC Acting Managing Director Manuai Kametan said as a responsibility body that operates and maintains airports, it had to close Tari airport because it had reason to believe that the airport was not safe.

"The safety of travelers is of paramount importance to NAC and we cannot guarantee their safety as it was too risky," Mr. Kametan said.

The Chief Executive Officer Air Niugini Wasantha Kumarasiri also yesterday said the flights into Tari would also be temporally closed in compliance with the notice from the National Airports Corporation.

Mr. Wasantha said the suspension of services will remain until further notice and while the airline regrets the inconvenience caused, the situation was beyond its control.

The closure of the airport was instigated by spokesman and deputy chairman of Tari airport landowners association Benson Angobe (Homaria clan), Chairman Mark Mulungu, Chief Luke Luya and others.

Mr. Angobe said the landowners demand the State to pay them 17 million kina [US$6.5 million] up front before they could allow the airport to be re-opened. He said 6 million kina [US$2.3 million] of the amount is for the Piribu Kia clans while 11 million kina [US$4.2 million] would be dispersed to the 19 affected landowner groups.

Mr. Angobe said petition calling on the State to honor this payment was delivered to the Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare with copies to other senior government ministers, local Members of Parliament and relevant State authorities such as CAA chief executive officer Joseph Kintau three weeks ago in Port Moresby. Mr. Angobe said their petition lapsed on October 20 and they have no option now but force the closure of the airport indefinitely until their demands are met by the State.

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