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Australia Moves to Improve Ties With South Pacific Neighbors

Demonstrators in Papua New Guinea tried to disrupt a visit by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Landowners staged protests as part of a dispute over proposed mining of the Kokoda Track, a trail where Australian forces fought Japanese troops during the Second World War. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australia's new prime minister was greeted on his first visit to Papua New Guinea by landowners living along the Kokoda Track, who staged a noisy protest against Australia's opposition to mining in the area.

The trail was the site of a series of battles between Australian and Japanese forces in 1942.

The Kokoda Track is a revered part of Australia's military history and Canberra wants it given World Heritage protection.

Villagers, though, want sections of the rugged path to be mined for copper and gold. They stand to make a fortune if permission is granted, something Kevin Rudd has opposed.

Mr. Rudd, a former diplomat, has needed great tact during his visit to Papua New Guinea.

Relations between Australia and its former colony and nearest neighbor have been sensitive in recent years. The former Australian prime minister, John Howard, rarely saw eye-to-eye with officials in Port Moresby. Mr. Howard became increasingly frustrated at what he saw as a lack of action to combat corruption in Papua New Guinea.

Mr. Rudd hopes his visit will be the beginning of more harmonious times.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare says it is time for a fresh start.

"The relationship was more or less deteriorated for a little while because of what transpired at the time," he explained. "There was no common understanding, mutual understanding between the differences that we have and the differences the previous Australian governments have. But it's all water under the bridge."

The environment will be a focus of discussions during Mr. Rudd's visit, especially problems with mining and forestry operations.

The two countries have agreed to safeguard vast areas of tropical rainforest and to monitor logging in Papua New Guinea.

"We've outlined a new framework to work together on this," Mr. Rudd said. "A regular dialogue on how we can advance this agenda within the international forums of the world. Secondly, an Australian offer for technical assistance when it comes to the satellite based monitoring of the extent of forestry coverage."

Most people in Papua New Guinea live a subsistence lifestyle in remote areas. HIV and AIDS are serious problems, along with gang violence and official corruption.

Mr. Rudd next visits another of Australia's small South Pacific neighbors, the Solomon Islands.

Australia led a multinational peacekeeping force into the archipelago in 2003 to end years of ethnic fighting.

Canberra says its intervention was intended to make sure political instability did not allow its neighbors to become havens for extremists and criminals.