PNG ex commander says seized control of military

A former military commander in Papua New Guinea Thursday claimed to have seized control of the country's armed forces and demanded that ousted prime minister Michael Somare be reinstated.

The dramatic move appeared to be connected with a power struggle between Somare and sitting premier Peter O'Neill over leadership of the resource-rich but impoverished country, which has been struggling to throw off its reputation as a politically dysfunctional and often lawless nation.

Ex-colonel Yaura Sasa held a news conference at military headquarters in the capital Port Moresby to declare himself leader following what media reports described as a "mutiny" at the city's Taurama barracks.

"My task is restoring the integrity and respect of the constitution and the judiciary," Sasa told reporters at the commander's office.

"I am now calling on the head of state to immediately implement the Supreme Court decision relating to Sir Michael Somare's position as the prime minister."

Sasa demanded O'Neill recall parliament and set a seven-day deadline for MPs to reinstate Somare as leader.

"If this call is not heeded I may be forced to take necessary actions to protect and uphold the integrity of the constitution," he said, but would not comment on what sorts of actions he was referring to.

Somare's camp confirmed that Sasa was acting in their interests.

"I can confirm that Sir Michael and his cabinet appointed the new PNGDF commander," Somare's spokeswoman told AFP.

O'Neill's deputy Belden Namah said 15 of the 30 officers involved in the incident had been arrested and urged Sasa to give himself up, warning that he faced the death penalty for treason.

"They have acted outside of the orders of the commander and the police commissioner," Namah said.

"I am now appealing to those rogue military personnel and to this civilian who's occupying the commander's office to immediately surrender themselves to the police because your actions are illegal in nature."

Namah condemned Somare for using "rogue soldiers to pursue his own greed and selfishness."

Somare, 75, was removed from office while out of the country recovering from illness last year only to later be declared the rightful leader by the Pacific nation's Supreme Court, throwing PNG into political turmoil.

O'Neill eventually resumed the prime ministership after Governor General Michael Ogio backed down on his reappointment of Somare as leader following the Supreme Court ruling.

At the height of the crisis PNG had two prime ministers, two governors-general, two cabinets and two police chiefs, though O'Neill commands majority support among MPs and the public service.

Somare has consistently refused to recognise O'Neill's leadership, storming into the nation's parliament as recently as last week with the Supreme Court's order and demanding he be reinstated.

Known as the "Grand Chief", Somare led PNG for almost half of its 36 years of independence.

Though he was appointed by Somare, Sasa -- formerly defence attache to Indonesia -- said he was a "neutral" party.

He denied his actions were a "military coup," describing them as the "normal process of replacement of commander by the government."

"I assure the international community, our investors, this is not a military coup. I am intervening to uphold the constitution and I have my intentions made known and that the two parties comply with this promptly."

Australia's foreign office confirmed "disturbances" at Port Moresby's military barracks and urged that "the situation be resolved as soon as possible, and that the PNGDF chain of command is restored."

O'Neill had assured Australia's ambassador that "authorities were taking steps to manage the situation" and the Australian defence attache had also spoken to Commander Francis Agwi, who was deposed in the mutiny, a foreign spokeswoman said.

"We understand that discussions are underway within the PNGDF to resolve the matter," Australia's foreign office spokeswoman said.

Sasa said he had met with Agwi and served him with documents from the government rescinding his appointment, denying that he was under house arrest.

But PNG Defence Force chief of staff Captain Tom Ur told Radio New Zealand Agwi remained in charge and Sasa only had a small band of supporters.

"We have only one commander. If we don't see any legal instruments and all that, we are not taking orders from renegade soldiers," said Ur.

"Hopefully they come to their senses and stand down."

by Mathieu Rabechault © 2012 AFP

Source: AFP
Date: Jan 26, 2012