Thu, Sep 14, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Howard slams Solomons' expulsion of ambassador

SERIOUS RIFT Canberra has sent an envoy to protest the expulsion and hinted that the conflict may affect an Aussie police mission maintaining peace on the island

AFP , SYDNEY

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday he refused to accept the expulsion of Canber-ra's envoy from the Solomon Islands, setting the stage for a diplomatic showdown with the Pacific nation.

Howard was speaking as a top Australian envoy headed to the Solomons to protest the expulsion of Ambassador Patrick Cole after tensions between the two countries flared into a serious rift.

"We don't accept for a moment the expulsion of our High Commissioner Patrick Cole," Howard told national radio.

"He was doing the right thing, he was representing the interests of Australia, he was concerned about corruption in the Solomon Islands."

Howard indicated the dispute could affect an Australian police mission to help with law and order on the impoverished island.

"There is a big issue at stake here and we've put a lot of resources and ... we have a lot of police there," Howard said.

Deputy Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department David Ritchie was due to meet Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Honiara to ram home Australia's strong objections to the expulsion.

Sogavare reportedly told Howard that Cole would be expelled in retaliation for Canberra's opposition to a Solomons inquiry into rioting in April and also accused Cole of meddling in internal politics.

In a statement released in Honiara, Sogavare's government confirmed he had demanded Cole's immediate recall and then declared him persona non grata, denying him recognition as a diplomat.

"Mr Sogavare told John Howard despite this course of action it was his sincere hope that the two governments would continue to maintain and further strengthen the cordial relations between the two countries and peoples," it said.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that the government-appointed inquiry could be used to shift blame for the unrest onto Australian police who form part of a regional force deployed to end civil unrest in 2003. The force was boost-ed in April after riots trashed Hon-iara and led to the resignation of Sogavare's predecessor Snyder Rini.

The riots were sparked by Rini's election by fellow legislators after he was accused of receiving money from local Chinese businessmen and from Taiwan to bribe fellow legislators for support.

But when Sogavare took power, he appointed two allies accused of inciting the riots to his Cabinet while they were still behind bars. Downer said he also fears the inquiry into the rioting could damage the case against the two men.

He said the expulsion was "an outrageous thing to do and it's an extremely unprofessional thing to have done."

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