Clark bids to rescue Forum

By Ruth Berry

Prime Minister Helen Clark began a whirlwind round of diplomacy with Pacific leaders last night to save the Australian-led mission to the strife-torn Solomon Islands.

Within hours of touching down in Fiji for the Pacific Islands Forum, she had secured one-on-one meetings with seven Pacific leaders in a sign of her determination not to see the forum's agenda derailed.

They included meetings with Sir Michael Somare (Papua New Guinea) and Manasseh Sogavare (Solomons), who are proving the biggest thorns in Australian Prime Minister John Howard's side.

"I think it would be seen as a failure for the whole forum if the mission was asked to leave and I'd be surprised if that was the outcome," Helen Clark said.

Earlier Mr Howard arrived in conciliatory mood, hoping the Pacific's "balmy breezes" might help soothe tensions between his Government and those of PNG and the Solomons.

He distanced his Administration from the police raid on the office of Mr Sogavare in Honiara on Friday, saying "any suggestion that this was an action in which Australia was involved is totally wrong".

The raid was authorised by Solomons Police Commissioner Shane Castles, an Australian, with the help of personnel from the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi).

Earlier Sir Michael told reporters at the forum that Australia's attitude was "arrogant".

The Melanesian Spearhead Group, comprising Fiji, the Solomons, PNG and Vanuatu, issued a statement condemning the raid, which has inflamed already serious tensions before the forum, which formally begins today.

Last night it was difficult to tell if Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase agreed with the other three.

The group's statement originally appeared without his signature but, in a confusing twist, officials later released a second version which was signed by Mr Qarase.

Mr Qarase, Mr Howard and Helen Clark all met last night. Mr Howard also took part in a meeting which included the Solomon and PNG leaders - the first, probably critical, face-to-face encounter.

The spearhead group's statement said the raid conducted by the Australian members of the Participating Police Force (PPF) in the Solomons resulted in the "breaking down of a door" and the removal of equipment.

"The leaders described the actions by Australian members of PPF as provocative, uncalled for and unnecessary. Proper courtesies and protocols could have been observed."

The actions were a "serious violation of territorial sovereignty" and inconsistent with the UN Charter on sovereignty and the Declaration on the Solomon Islands issued by the forum in 2004. The actions had "tainted the good image of credibility of Ramsi", the statement said.

Mr Howard said the raid was "carried out by the Solomon Islands police force and therefore it's something I don't want to comment on".

"I knew nothing about it until I read about it in the media. They weren't there acting at the insistence of Australia.

"Sure a number of the police come from Australia, including the police commissioner, but he's acting as the head of the Solomon Islands police force, he's under contract to the Government of the Solomon Islands. So any suggestion that this was an action in which Australia was involved is totally wrong."

The extradition to Australia of suspended Solomons Attorney-General Julian Moti "is not something we are pushing or retaining. It's entirely a matter for the police".

Asked how the stand-off - driven more by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer than his PM - would be resolved, Mr Howard said: "I'm always a person of great goodwill towards both of those countries. There's great affection in Australia for the people of PNG, there's also very great regard for the people of the Solomon Islands.

"Our broad approach to Ramsi, and our broad approach to aid in the Pacific, is well understood.

"I'm quite sure that some careful discussion in the balmy breezes of the Pacific can do wonders to soothe nerves and reconcile differences."

Helen Clark also played down the prospect of the row destabilising the Ramsi mission.

She said Australia was putting $250m a year into the Solomons - critical to its effectiveness.

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