Sogavare unforgiving despite aid

AUSTRALIA'S assistance to the Solomon Islands after the April 2 tsunami appears to have done little to mend relations between the two countries, with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare yesterday returning fire on allegations of corruption and vowing never to extradite fugitive lawyer Julian Moti.

In an exclusive interview, Mr Sogavare said Australia's vital help in coping with the disaster had saved lives and even opened up the possibility of dialogue between himself and John Howard, after months of standoff amid bitter diplomatic brawling.

Although Mr Sogavare hopes to have talks soon with his Australian counterpart, he warned he would not back down on contentious issues between the countries, and accused the Howard Government of hypocrisy in its allegations that some parts of the Solomon Islands Government were corrupt.

The two leaders spoke by telephone soon after the tsunami struck. Mr Howard followed up his offer of emergency aid to call on Mr Sogavare to join him in working towards better relations.

Mr Sogavare said he wanted to build on the emerging goodwill, but not at the expense of giving in to the Howard Government's demands on such issues as Mr Moti's extradition or maintaining the focus of the the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

"It is very harmful to swallow things that you are not happy about, but yes, we are working toward normalising our relationship," Mr Sogavare said from his office in Honiara.

"It is amazing what disaster can do to move people who are not on talking terms to talk with each other.

"I think there has been misunderstanding on our positions, and if we get talking and agree on how it should happen, I think we can move on."

The disaster has taken the lives of more than 40 people. An estimated 60 are still missing and more than 7000 people have been left homeless.

Mr Sogavare said an estimated 50,000 people might have to be relocated from the worst-hit western parts of the Solomons because of irreparable damage to their villages and widespread fear of another tsunami.

Despite Australia's assistance and hopes of a warming in the bilateral relationship, Mr Sogavare launched a stinging salvo yesterday when asked about Canberra's allegations of corruption in his Government, and an open letter written by Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer to a Solomons newspaper earlier this year.

In the letter, Mr Downer accused the Sogavare Government of having too close a relationship with elements of the former Malaitan Eagle Force, which was involved in the bloody ethnic tensions that crippled the Pacific nation and led to the RAMSI intervention in 2003.

The letter followed last year's expulsion of Australia's High Commissioner to Honiara, Patrick Cole, for alleged meddling in local politics; the refusal to extradite Mr Moti, the suspended Attorney-General; and the effective sacking of Australian Shane Castles as Solomons police commissioner after he was deemed an "undesirable immigrant".

Mr Sogavare said the Downer letter was a breach of sovereignty, because it constituted a foreign government speaking directly to the Solomons' population.

It also revealed Mr Downer's poor understanding of discrimination against the large Malaitan ethnic group, the PM said.

"What was outlined was divisive," he said. "It basically accused the Government, falsely, of siding with a militant group."

Mr Sogavare said his Government would never agree to extradite Mr Moti, an Australian lawyer who is wanted by Australian police on child sex charges in Vanuatu that date back to 1997, and of which Mr Moti was cleared after allegedly bribing a magistrate in Port Vila.


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