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Two submerged atolls midway between two nations

By Avinesh Gopal SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, March. 29, 2011) - Fiji is ready to hold talks with Tonga on the saga surrounding the ownership of Minerva Reef.

While Fiji claims the reefs belong to Fiji, Tonga has filed a counter claim for the reef.

[PIR editor’s note: Tonga’s claim over the Minerva Reefs is based on a declaration made by the late King Tupou IV, who declared the reefs as Tongan territory in February 1972, after the Tongan navy ousted the famous ‘Republic of Minerva’ a month earlier. The South Pacific Forum also endorsed Tonga’s claim over the reefs.]

Deputy Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Sila Balawa said Fiji had always viewed Minerva Reef as part of Fiji.

Mr. Balawa said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) recognizes that Minerva Reefs are inside Fiji's Exclusive Economic Zone.

"As such, we maintain that it's always a part of Fiji but now we have a counter claim from Tonga for the reef, he said. But we are open to dialogue with Tonga on the Minerva Reef issue. Since Tonga is very close to Fiji and we have links, we can sit with them and talk."

Mr. Balawa said Fiji would sit with Tonga as friends and talk in an attempt to find an amicable solution to the problem.

"Talks are in progress for Fiji and Tonga to have bilateral talks on the reef issue and other issues, he said. While no time frame has been set yet for the talks, it's our hope that talks will materialize in the near future."

Minerva Reef or Ongo Teleki in Tongan is a group of two submerged atolls located 500 kilometers southeast of Tonga and 520 kilometers south of Fiji.

The reef was named after the whale ship Minerva was wrecked on what became known as South Minerva after setting out from Sydney, Australia in 1829.

The "Strathcona" which was sailing north after completion in Auckland in 1914 also got wrecked at the reef and in both cases, the crew managed to reach islands in the Lau Group.

On February 24, 1972, Tonga laid claims to the Minerva Reef and the move was recognized by the South Pacific Forum later that year.

But Fiji had made it clear that under UNCLOS, it does not recognize any maritime water claims by Tonga to the Minerva Reef.

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