Australia on yesterday barred Papua New Guinea's (PNG) prime minister from visiting the country, as a diplomatic row between Canberra and two South Pacific nations showed no signs of abating.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said his country would cut ministerial contacts with its northern neighbor until an investigation was held into the escape from PNG of a Solomon Islands official wanted on child sex charges.
The official, suspended attorney-general Julian Moti, was arrested at Australia's request during an airport stopover in PNG on Sept. 29.
But after being granted bail he sheltered in the Solomons embassy in the PNG capital Port Moresby for a week before being flown to the Solomon Islands on a PNG military flight last Tuesday.
It was important for Papua New Guinea to establish who gave the orders allowing Moti to leave the country, Downer told Network Ten television.
"In the meantime I don't think it's appropriate for the prime minister of Papua New Guinea to come to Australia and I don't think the defense minister should come later this month as was originally planned," he said.
He said a ministerial forum with PNG at the end of the year was now also in doubt.
"I think until we have sorted these problems out, we should suspend our ministerial contacts with them," Downer said.
PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare said shortly after Moti's arrest that he would be allowed to leave PNG, but his spokeswoman said later that Somare had not known of the plan to fly the fugitive out of the country.
Moti, now in custody in the Solomons and facing charges of illegal entry, is wanted in Australia on child sex charges involving a 13-year-old girl in Vanuatu in 1997.
Downer also warned that the row threatened Australia's aid to Pacific nations.
"For the Papua New Guinea government to have spirited a fugitive out of the country, in breach of Papua New Guinea law, is a reminder that there is a real problem with governance in some corners of the Pacific," Downer said.
"Australia has got to learn not just to shovel aid into neighboring countries but to make sure there are high standards of governance," he said. "We have taken the view that Australia has to take a stronger approach to these problems."
The Solomons also raised the stakes last Friday, threatening to kick Australia out of a regional force deployed to maintain stability in the troubled Pacific nation.
Solomon Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told parliament that Australians would be removed if Canberra continued to push for the extradition of Moti, an Australian lawyer who is reportedly a close friend of the Solomon leader.