Bainimarama silent on looming clash

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 16:16 12/06/2011

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Fiji's military regime has refused all comment today over Tongan claims that one of their patrol boats was chased away from the remote Minerva Reefs, 1500 kilometres north of Auckland.

The unpopulated reefs, popular with yachties sailing to and from New Zealand, have long been claimed by Tonga but recently Fiji asserted they were theirs.

On Friday, two Tongan navy patrol boats returned to the atolls and claimed they chased away a Fijian Navy warship in one of the two lagoons.

Military coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama refused all comment and left on a previously announced trip to the Lau Islands, the eastern part of Fiji culturally aligned to Tonga.

It was revealed today he would also go to Ono-i-Lau, a set of Fijian islands closest to Minerva.

Officially, he is to open a women's centre there.

Fiji's Land Force Commander Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga told the FijiLive website he knew nothing of the incident with the Tongans.

"I have not received the reports," he said.

Blogsite Coup Four and a Half - which has a mixed record on events in Fiji but was most recently accurate over the runaway Colonel Tevita Mara - reported this afternoon that three Fiji Navy ships are being prepared at Walu Bay, near Suva, for a return mission to Minerva.

The blog says the ships will have 30 crew each and will re-assert Fiji's claim over the reefs.

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

"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.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully yesterday 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."

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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.

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 will visit New Zealand this week.

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.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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