Australian Prime Minister John Howard has denied an allegation that his government offered a bounty for the murder of his counterpart in the Solomon Islands. An Australian citizen has appeared in court in the Solomons charged with conspiring to assassinate Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, whose government is at odds with the government in Canberra. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

An Australian newspaper has published what it says are Solomon Islands police documents that claim a group of assassins, including an Australian citizen named Bill Johnson, had planned to murder Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare for money.

The paper quoted the documents as saying a contract for the assassination, amounting to $39,000, was "sponsored by Australia."

The suggestion has drawn a rather bemused response from Australian Prime Minister John Howard. He says he knows very little about the alleged plot, but he is aware that an Australian man was allegedly involved.

"We're aware that he's been charged, but did we try and get anybody to assassinate the prime minister of the Solomon Islands? Of course not," he said.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade called the allegation "preposterous."

Lawyers for Johnson, 60, say the charges against him are "crazy." They say the prosecution's evidence amounts to nothing more than "drunken conversation." Four other men have also been accused in the alleged plot.

As far-fetched as the accusation of Australian involvement might seem, relations between the two South Pacific neighbors have been strained.

Australia is worried that potentially failing island states in the South Pacific, such as the Solomon Islands and Papau New Guinea, could be exploited by international criminals and terrorists.

Years of ethnic fighting prompted Australia to lead a multinational peacekeeping force into the Solomons in July 2003. Rates of poverty and unemployment in the country remain high. And there have been allegations, repeated in Australia, of widespread political corruption among the islands' officials and politicians.

Just a few weeks before Mr. Sogovare took office last May, politically motivated violence broke out again in the capital, Honiara.

Mr. Sogovare's government is currently refusing to hand over its attorney-general, Julian Moti, another Australian citizen who is wanted by the Australian authorities on child sex charges.

Despite the ill will between the two nations, Australia is continuing to pour billions of reconstruction dollars into the country.

The project is part of more interventionist regional approach adopted by Canberra since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the bombings a year later on the Indonesian island of Bali in which 88 Australians were killed.