Thu, Nov 27, 2003 - Page 2 News List

China rushes to pull down atoll satellite tracker

AFP , AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

China was hastily dismantling its mid-Pacific satellite-tracking base yesterday following the decision of the tiny Pacific atoll nation of Kiribati to recognize Taiwan, an eyewitness said.

Technicians were seen burning files at the high security compound on Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati, the witness said.

The closure of the tracking station followed the decision of newly-elected President Anote Tong on Nov. 7 to recognize Taipei.

China, which continues to maintain its embassy on Tarawa, said yesterday it would suspend ties next week but by yesterday had withdrawn its doctors from the only hospital and halted construction of a sports stadium.

The most dramatic action has centered on the satellite tracking station at the eastern end of Tarawa.

A nearby resident who did not want to be named reported that a Chinese ship arrived at Tarawa early this week, sparking action at the sprawling satellite base.

"It happened very suddenly," he said.

"It looks like they are dismantling the place. I saw them move one of the dishes down the road," he said.

At the back of the compound the witness could see workers apparently burning files.

"It does look relatively deserted and the gates that are normally closed are currently open. There is no sign of activity, it's as though they have done the bulk of their work quite rapidly and quite covertly in the last couple of days," he said.

Radio Kiribati quoted Chinese Ambassador Ma Shuxue (馬書學) as saying Beijing would suspend relations next week if ties were maintained with Taiwan.

In the last week the ambassador has tried to persuade key Kiribati politicians to reverse the decision.

Former president Ieremia Tabai told reporters that Ma had invited him to the embassy in a bid to persuade the government to change its mind.

"They wanted me to try and convince the government to reverse the decision. I told them it was impossible as the government was solid in its support of the decision, and so was the country. It would be very hard to reverse the decision," he said.

During elections last year the Chinese ambassador admitted to giving money to politicians linked to then-president Teburoro Tito.

The satellite station, which China two months ago said played a key role in its historic manned space flight last month, is located on the sparsely populated Bonriki islet near the international airport.

It is around 40 minutes' drive from Betio where around 6,000 Japanese and Americans were killed in 1943 in one of the worst battles of World War II.

The existence of the tracking station was little known until 1999 when a reporter visited it with a former Kiribati Cabinet minister. At the time the dishes were aligned northwards towards the US Army missile testing base at the Marshall Islands' Kwajalein Atoll 1,000km away.

Kwajalein is a vast base for testing ballistic missiles fired from California and is also used for developing the US missile defense system.

Although remote, Kiribati's position on the Equator makes it attractive to the aerospace industry. The giant Sealaunch Boeing-led consortium launches satellites from a converted oil rig near the nation's Kiritimati atoll.

Kiribati has also given Japan's National Space Development Agency permission to build a spaceport for a proposed shuttle project on the atoll.

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