Pacific leaders arrive for forum - without Bainimarama

By Claire Trevett

Leaders from around the Pacific arrived on Niue last night - with one notable face absent as Fiji interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama saw through his pledge to boycott the Forum.

However, while absent in body he remained on the plane carrying several of the leaders from Auckland to Niue in name - there was a moment of surprise when the flight attendant asked for a "Mr Bainimarama" to raise his hand so they could deliver the meal he had requested when booking.

Heads spun to check if any hands were rising before hoots of laughter spread around the delegates at the rear of the plane.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was greeted together with other leaders including the Forum's outgoing chair Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele. They were greeted with a Niuean Takalo - or challenge, similar to the Maori wero, which ended with pledges of friendship on each side. Mr Sevele took the coconut handed to the leader of the delegation to drink as a sign of friendship.

From there, Helen Clark went straight into bilateral meetings with the leaders of Niue, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. The Forum proper opens tomorrow and while the subject of Fiji will be one testing leaders' heads, climate change is the theme of the conference and an area both Helen Clark and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have highlighted recently.

Tomorrow at the leaders' retreat they will also have to consider whether to adopt recommendations from a contact group of foreign ministers on Fiji which is expected to insist on elections by March next year, as Mr Bainimarama promised in 2007.

Mr Bainimarama has released the statement he was expected to deliver to the forum, in which he indicated Fiji will pull out of the Forum altogether if it continued to insist on elections by March 2009.

In it he says if the Forum adopts the report "I am sorry to say we have reached the end of the road for Fiji.... I will be compelled to return to Fiji to tell the people of my country that they must now be prepared to suffer more sanctions and international isolation as we pursue our own way in Fiji to return to a better and durable democracy."

He also takes swipes at both New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters, saying he took a "dogmatic hostile and uncooperative approach towards Fiji" and Helen Clark, whom he said "trivialised" his attempts to return to democracy.

The Forum is not the only body considering Fiji - the Commonwealth Secretary General Karmalesh Sharma told the Herald the Commonwealth would be considering the Forum's decisions tomorrow when it met next month. Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth Council after the

December 2006 coup. However he did not believe a punitive attitude was appropriate. The Forum's acting secretary general has also spoken of the need to re-engage with Fiji.

Mr Bainimarama has blamed New Zealand for his decision not to attend, claiming it would not allow him into Auckland to take part in discussions after the Forum.

PM Helen Clark has described it as an "excuse" because the post-Forum discussions will be taking place in Niue, rather than Auckland

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