Warships square off in Pacific feud

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 05:00 12/06/2011

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Fiji and Tonga warships have confronted each other in an escalating quarrel over two lonely reefs 1500km north of Auckland.

The two island nations are already at loggerheads over Tonga's decision to give refuge to fleeing Fiji dissenter Colonel Tevita Mara.

Now, a Fijian patrol boat has fled the Minerva Reefs – claimed by both nations – as two Tongan patrol boats challenged its presence.

Tonga's Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaiulu said the Fiji navy was discovered in a Minerva lagoon.

"Our navy went back to their navy and they ran away, because it is our territory," he told TVNZ last night. Nominally the Tongan mission was to reinstall a maritime beacon on Minerva, blown up by the Fijians.

Tonga's special adviser to the prime minister, Ahongalu Fusimalohi, warned Fiji that if it attacks the new lighthouse it would be seen as an "act of aggression".

Both sides have small fleets of patrol boats, provided through Australian aid, equipped with 20mm cannons.

Fusimalohi said Tonga was acting legally. "We had two naval boats to install the beacon which was bought down by the Fiji navy."

The 162-tonne Savea and Pangai installed the beacons and returned safely to Nuku'alofa, four hours away.

Fiji has not admitted to a navy retreat, but the government issued a press statement claiming the Minerva Reef showdown was part of a plot by Australia, supported by New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, to "subvert the path towards the holding of truly democratic elections in Fiji". Last night McCully told the Sunday Star-Times the Fiji statement was probably from some "even looser cannon" than usual in the regime.

"It is disappointing to see that somebody in Fiji has had an exotic excursion with the computer, but we will not be provoked by that," McCully said.

He appealed for both sides "to pause and reflect before upping the ante" and use well established international processes to resolve border disputes.

New Zealand saw the issue as entirely bilateral and not involving Wellington but New Zealand mariners did use the reefs. "If it appears at any stage there is advice to be given to yachties then we will do so."

The Minerva dispute is being seen by diplomatic sources as an attempt by Suva to divert attention from the tensions building within Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama's regime. Since Mara, one of his top soldiers, fled to Tonga to avoid sedition charges, the powerful Mara family has been openly acting against Bainimarama.

Mara is a son of Fiji's founding prime minister and president, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

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Last month Tonga ship Savea intruded into Fijian waters to pick up the fleeing colonel. Although Suva demanded Mara be sent back, Fusimalohi has confirmed they have given him Tongan citizenship and a passport and he was in Australia. He has applied for a visa to visit New Zealand. McCully said the government was still considering whether to give Mara a visa "but we will not be influenced by blustering from Fiji".

Tonga first claimed the two unpopulated Minerva Reefs in 1971 after an American tried to create a republic on them. The Pacific Forum recognised the Tongan action, but Fiji did not. Last year Tonga erected a beacon at a lagoon popular with yachties heading to and from New Zealand.

Earlier this year Fiji, according to a Tongan statement, sent "the full might of Fijian sea power" to Minerva to destroy the beacon.

FIJI v TONGA

Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) 3500 fulltime soldiers (mostly infantry). 6000 reservists. 1st and 2nd Battalion serve abroard in Iraq, East Timor and Sinai. 3rd Fiji Infantry Regiment headquarters at Queen Elizabeth Barracks in hills above Suva. No air force or artillery (but equipped with mortars). Navy Division – 300 strong. Nine patrol boats, including two Australian "Forum Class".

Tonga Defence Service (TDS) 500 fulltime soldiers. 100 serving in Afghanistan and Solomon Islands. Recently updated to US and British frontline weapons. Air Force division has one twin-engine Beechcraft for surveillance. Three Forum Class patrol boats from Australia, as well as a barge and a royal yacht.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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