Four South Pacific nations yesterday accused Australia of violating the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands fueling tensions as the region's leaders gathered for their annual summit.
Disputes between Australia and the Solomons are threatening to overshadow the summit, which is expected to include discussions of the future of an Australian-led security force in the troubled country.
Canberra has asked the Solomons to extradite an Australian citizen -- and close friend of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare -- to face child sex abuse charges in his home country.
Sogavare has refused the request and has suggested he could kick Australia out of the regional force of troops, police and officials that arrived in the Solomons in July 2003 and has helped restore law and order following years of communal violence.
Australians were among the police who raided Sogavare's office on Friday looking for evidence connected to the extradition case, drawing a sharp response yesterday from Sogavare and three other Melanesian leaders, who held talks in Fiji ahead of the Pacific Island Forum meeting of 16 South Pacific nations.
The leaders of Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons said they "strongly condemned" actions by Australian members of the police force in the Solomon Islands in the raid on Sogavare's office, which they described "as provocative, uncalled for, and unnecessary."
"These actions are certainly a serious violation of Solomon Islands' territorial sovereignty and integrity, and are inconsistent with the UN Charter on the Respect for the Principles of Sovereignty," the leaders said in a statement.
The matter will be raised formally at the forum meeting, they said.
Howard noted that some Australian police in the Solomons were acting in positions within that country's police force, and that "any suggestion this was an action in which Australia was involved in any way is totally wrong."
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark on Saturday described the situation in the Solomon Islands as volatile, and said she would call for continued support of the mission during the three-day talks in the Fiji town of Nadi. Some leaders held bilateral and smaller-group discussions yesterday ahead of today's formal opening of the forum, which wraps up tomorrow.
Howard has warned that aid could be cut for unstable South Pacific states if they don't reduce corruption and strengthen accountability -- a move likely to further enflame tensions.
Before leaving Australia yesterday for the forum, Howard toned down the language of earlier warnings.
"We want to continue to provide significant amounts of aid," he told reporters in Sydney. "Our only request is that aid be accompanied by improved standards of governance ... and also a better approach to economic development and economic management."
The forum chairman, Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, said he was sure a way of resolving the issues would be found.