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Australia Heads for Diplomatic Showdown With South Pacific Neighbors


Opposition politicians in Australia say their government has mismanaged its relationship with Papua New Guinea after Canberra announced it was suspending some diplomatic ties with the country. The Australian government is angry that a lawyer it wanted to extradite on child sex charges was allowed to leave Papua New Guinea.

The man at the heart of this diplomatic dispute is Julian Moti, an Australian lawyer, who is wanted on child sex charges dating back almost a decade.

He was arrested in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, last month but managed to skip bail and flee the country last week.

Officials in Canberra want to know why their extradition request was ignored and how Moti was allowed to escape.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has responded by suspending some diplomatic ties with Papua New Guinea. Its prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, will not be allowed to visit Australia for now.

Kevin Rudd from Australia's opposition Labor Party says the government has overreacted.

"We have to deal with all these countries in the future, on big things and small things, and sometimes it's important to bite your tongue and get things done," Rudd said. "The objective is to get Mr. Moti back to Australia - is that objective helped by Mr. Downer jumping around and screaming and shouting? I don't think so."

What makes this case so sensitive is that the Solomon Islands government recently appointed Moti attorney general.

The lawyer is now in the Solomons' capital Honiara where he is in custody facing immigration charges. He has been suspended from duty while investigations continue.

The Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has warned Canberra that if it continues to push for Moti's extradition then Australian peacekeepers could be thrown out of the troubled South Pacific country.

The soldiers and police officers are part of a regional force that was deployed earlier this year to quell violent disturbances in Honiara.

The Solomons has already expelled Australia's ambassador, accusing him last month of interfering in domestic politics.

Australia has spent $600 million on the peacekeeping mission in the Solomon Islands. Officials in Canberra said the impoverished South Pacific archipelago faced a "life or death" struggle to end years of political corruption, ethnic warfare and social degeneration.

The Australian government has long been concerned that some of its South Pacific neighbors could become failed states because of poverty, poor management and ethnic violence. Should their governments collapse, the islands could then become havens for organized criminals and terrorists.

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