Speculation has arisen over the health of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga -- one of the world's last absolute monarchs -- after a report that he has been rushed to New Zealand for medical reasons.
The Matangi Tonga newspaper in Nuku'alofa reported in the "royalty and nobility" section of its website that since December 19, Tonga's Prime Minister Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, 47, was running the country as the Prince Regent, "until the king returns".
"The King of Tonga left Tonga to go to New Zealand ... for medical reasons in what appeared to be a hasty departure," reported the independent newspaper, which is edited and published by Pesi Fonua, in Nuku'alofa.
The trip was unexpected since the king had only recently returned to Tonga from New Zealand and had been expected to be at home in Tonga over Christmas and the New Year.
Sateki 'Ahio, the acting secretary for the palace office, told the newspaper that he was not sure if King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV would stay on in Auckland or will return to Tonga for Christmas.
The king has previously been caught up in speculation about his health.
In early June, the King travelled to Auckland for a medical check up at Mercy Hospital, in Auckland, where he was admitted for several nights.
He returned to Tonga in mid-June, but not before Sateki 'Ahio had to rebut rumours that the monarch had died on June 12.
"His Majesty is healthy, and very well," he said at the time, after Tongans in Nuku'alofa said they had heard rumours of the king's death from relatives in Auckland.
The king celebrated his 87th birthday on July 4 in the archipelago of 110,000 people, but within a couple of months was back in Auckland for a visit which included a royal family engagement party and a "health check".
On September 6, he returned to Tonga after month in New Zealand.
By late November he was back in Auckland for further medical treatment, and The Dominion Post newspaper reported that the king's eldest son, Crown Prince Tupuoto'a -- who had himself been in a Californian hospital in October -- was "effectively running the country as regent".
A deeply conservative, Christian country, Tonga is ruled by the king supported by hereditary noblemen who together have a perpetual majority in parliament.
A seven week strike earlier this year by thousands of public servants over pay issues also broached constitutional reform.
The industrial dispute even spilled over to New Zealand with brawls in the street outside the royal home in the Auckland suburb of Epsom when protesters camped outside it for four days in August -- while the king was there.
The strikers secured pay rises of up to 80 per cent and a commitment from the government to "give due consideration" to introducing democratic reforms.