Armed stand-off in Samoa affects tourists

05:25, Aug 18 2012
ARMED STAND-OFF: Police outside Samoa's international airport at Faleolo.

Tourists on an Air New Zealand flight have been caught up in an armed stand-off outside Samoa's international airport at Faleolo.

Armed villagers from Satapuala have blocked the main road to the capital Apia and according to Samoa media it took a large band of armed police, who fired shots into the air, to clear the road.

A village matai or chief, Vaili Mimita, told the Samoa Observer that when the action began yesterday afternoon, people from an Air New Zealand flight were caught up with armed police officers and rowdy men wearing masks and balaclavas.

"When the police arrived, our village had gathered around the roadblock area," Vaili told the Samoa Observer.

"They came and they fired gunshots into the air as a warning. When we moved up close to them, they warned our village with more gunshots."

When some of the tourists and locals tried to move through the barricade, police told them to stay where they were: "Let us do our work and for your safety reasons, back off."

No vessel, air plane will take off from the airport for safety reasons.

Satapuala have been in dispute over land since German times at the beginning of last century. Their land was taken by New Zealand for an air base that became Faleolo Airport.

They are now trying to take back four hectares of land opposite the main entrance to the airport.

The government wants to build a hospital on it.

Villagers built a barricade across the road and according to the Observer, a large squad of armed police arrived.

More than a hundred police officers moved onto Satapuala land.

While some officers removed the boulders that Satapuala used to block Faleolo Road, others fired multiple gunshots into the air.

Vaili was injured during the brief confrontation.

He told the Samoa Observer that he tried to wrestle a gun from one of the officers who pushed him off with the warning; "Back off if you want to live."

Vaili said he looked at the women and young people around and he made the decision quite quickly.

"I knew it would be endless bloodshed," he said.

"The police were armed and some people from our village were also armed. It would've been an all out war.

"So I moved back and yelled at our village to retreat. That's when the police continued through. They were still firing shots into the air."

The Observer said Satapuala was an unforgettable sight.

With rocks lined across the road, over a hundred untitled men of Satapuala dotted the sides wearing masks and balaclavas.

Some openly brandished machetes, rocks and bottles of kerosene. There were also many women and children.

The government Savali website said "the rule of law has been restored at Satapuala".

He said Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele had used a radio broadcast to attack "poor leadership" at Satapuala.

"Government will not sit by idle while thugs run amok on the streets. Who do they think they are blocking public roads and holding up motorists and tourists?

"This sort of stupidity is indicative of the uneducated leadership of Satapuala."

The prime minister said police had been ordered to arrest the matai and the village council in Satapuala.

"This government does not tolerate this sort of contempt for the rule of law. It does not tolerate this sort of reckless challenge to the state."

It was also reported that Member of Parliament for A'ana Alofi III - which includes Satapuala - Toesulusulu Cedric Schuster was also among those who blocked the road.

"The next step is to charge the member of parliament for treason under parliamentary law," said Tuilaepa said.