Australia may be forced to withdraw its police contingent from Papua New Guinea after judges there ruled the deployment was unconstitutional. Around 200 Australian police officers and bureaucrats were sent to Papua New Guinea last year as part of a multi-million dollar program to help restore law and order in the South Pacific island nation.
Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court has ruled that aspects of the Australian police mission, in particular the visitors' immunity from prosecution, violates local laws.
The Australian government demanded this immunity before it agreed to deploy its police officers in August 2004 as part of a $615 million aid package, known as the Enhanced Cooperation Program.
As a result of the court's decision, about 160 Australian police officers have been withdrawn from the streets, where they had been working with their Papua New Guinean counterparts.
The country, a former Australian colony that gained independence in 1975, is facing serious law and order problems. Heavily armed gangs called "raskols" rule the capital, Port Moresby, which is thought to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
The Australian police were sent to deal with that problem, but what happens now is unclear. The court ruling means that the deal that brought the police to Papua New Guinea (PNG) will need fundamental changes if it is to be revived.
The governor of PNG's Morobe Province, Luther Wenge, says new rules of engagement need to be found.
"I'm not saying that Australians shouldn't come here," he said. "They are certainly our good friends, our long-time friends, and that friendship must remain, but whatever dealing that happens in Papua New Guinea and Australia must be consistent and in compliance with the law."
The court ruling is a blow to Canberra's policy of involvement in the affairs of its smaller neighbors in the South Pacific, including the Solomon Islands and Fiji.
Australia adopted its policy of intervention in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. It feared that instability in the region's small island states could create havens for drug traffickers and extremists.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the decision by the PNG judges is a disappointment.
"We do need to have a proper legal basis, though, for the deployment of Australian police and officials in Papua New Guinea," he said. "We can't do that without an appropriate legal framework. I just want to say it is without any doubt a setback for the Enhanced Cooperation Program and we'll just have to wait and see what we can work through with the Papua New Guinea government."
Papua New Guinea, a country of almost six million people, is the biggest recipient of Australian aid, receiving about $230 million a year.
Among other problems, the country has the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the South Pacific region, and relief agencies have warned that the country is facing a devastating epidemic.