Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Howard denies murder plot allegation

'PREPOSTEROUS' Australian Bill Johnson allegedly told Solomons police officers that he had planned to kill their country's prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, for a bounty

AP , HONIARA

Australia's prime minister rebutted an explosive allegation yesterday that his government had offered a bounty for the assassination of his counterpart in the Solomon Islands.

An Australian man, Bill Johnson appeared in a Solomon Islands court on Tuesday, charged with conspiring to murder Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who is at the center of a diplomatic rift between his impoverished South Pacific island nation and Australia.

The national newspaper the Australian yesterday published an extract from a police charge that alleged Johnson, 60, told two senior Solomon Islands police officers he planned to murder Sogavare "for a reward bounty payment" of A$50,000 (US$39,000) "sponsored by Australia."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters in Sydney yesterday that he knew little about the case other than the details revealed in media reports.

"Did we try and get anybody to assassinate the prime minister of the Solomon Islands? Of course not," Howard said.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also denied the government had any involvement and urged the Solomon Islands' judiciary to fairly examine the allegations.

"It is preposterous to suggest that the Australian government had any involvement in this alleged assassination attempt," a statement from the department said.

"We would expect that these allegations would be rigorously and fairly examined, that innuendo would be dismissed and the facts would be established," it said.

A magistrate ordered Johnson to be held in custody until next Wednesday, when the court in the Solomon Islands' capital, Honiara, will consider his bail application.

Johnson has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit a felony.

Prosecutors allege that Johnson and four other men, who were not named in court, conspired to murder Sogavare.

The men allegedly met at a hotel in Honiara and planned to commit the crime between Jan. 18 and Jan. 23.

Johnson was arrested at his hotel on Monday.

His alleged co-conspirators have not been found.

Johnson's lawyer Patrick Lavery told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio yesterday that the allegations were "crazy" and said that the prosecution's evidence amounted to nothing more than "drunken conversation."

Australia has led an international military and police force in the Solomon Islands since 2003, when the islands' former government invited the force to bring the nation back from the brink of economic and civil collapse.

But last year, Australia threatened to cut the Solomons' aid -- amounting to A$223 million for the fiscal year ending in June -- unless the government tackles corruption and improves its performance.

The Solomons government has refused to extradite Attorney General Julian Moti, who is Australian and wanted on child sex charges.

The Solomons last month barred the country's police chief, Shane Castles, from returning from a vacation in his native Australia by declaring him an "undesirable immigrant."

Johnson is a Vietnam war veteran who moved to the Solomons in 1992, married a Solomons woman and lives on the outlying island of Malaita with their three children, the Australian said.

Australian Honiara-based diplomats were giving Johnson consular assistance and had arranged for diabetes medication to be provided, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

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