PNG decision to delay forum throws Pacific leaders' plans into chaos

By Claire Trevett

A crucial meeting on Fiji's future in the Pacific Islands Forum has been thrown into chaos after Papua New Guinea decided to postpone it at the last minute against the wishes of other countries, including New Zealand.

The Herald understands PNG's Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, decided to cancel Tuesday's meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders and set a new date of February 10.

He did so after receiving an undertaking from Fiji's interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, that he would attend on that date, after pulling out of the original meeting.

The decision to delay was made without consulting other Pacific leaders, many of whom are already in New Zealand or other transit points on their way to Papua New Guinea.

Yesterday afternoon, Sir Michael's office told the Herald the meeting would be delayed and an announcement would be expected soon.

Fiji's interim Attorney-General, Aiyaz Saiyed-Khaiyum, said there was a "new development". When asked if it was a delay, he said the meeting would now be on February 10 and Commodore Bainimarama would attend.

Last week New Zealand and Australia rejected Commodore Bainimarama's request for a deferral of the meeting when he pulled out of next Tuesday's meeting, saying he wanted to focus on the flooding in his country.

At the time, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key expressed doubt whether Commodore Bainimarama would have attended anyway.

The New Zealand Government would not comment last night.

But PNG officials are understood to have already begun cancelling the venue and hotel bookings for the event.

Such a late change makes it highly unlikely several of the forum's 16 leaders - including NZ and Australia Prime Ministers - could attend the meeting, at which Fiji could face disciplinary measures for its lack of progress toward democratic elections.

The forum secretariat and its chair, Niuean Premier Toke Talagi, were also understood to want the meeting to go ahead as planned.

But Sir Michael is hosting the meeting in PNG and has worked most closely with Commodore Bainimarama - and overriding his wishes would cause a diplomatic headache.

Commodore Bainimarama also refused to attend the leaders' meeting in Niue last August at which the leaders wanted an explanation for his backdown from a commitment he had given the previous year to hold elections by March this year. New Zealand and Australia are viewed by Commodore Bainimarama as "bullies" for their criticism over his backdown on holding elections by March.

February 10, a Tuesday, is the first day New Zealand's Parliament sits for 2009, making Mr Key's attendance on that date almost impossible.

- NZ Herald

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