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Showdown between Tonga and Fiji looms

Published: 6:15PM Saturday June 11, 2011 Source: ONE News

Tonga's deputy Prime Minister has revealed to ONE News how close the country has come to a military confrontation with Fiji over disputed Pacific reefs.

The tit-for-tat battle is a situation New Zealand feared would happen. Both Fiji and Tonga claim Minerva Reef as their own.

"They do not have a right to those two islands, it belongs to his Majesty and the government of Tonga," said Samiu Vaipulu, Tonga's deputy Prime Minister.

The Fijians recently went to the reef and dismantled Tonga's navigational equipment.

In response, this week the Tongan government sent two of its own navy boats to protect their claim.

ONE News Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver has been told last night that the two Tongan Navy boats are at the disputed reef, rebuilding navigational equipment previously destroyed by the Fijian Navy.

"Our navy went back to their Navy and they ran away 'cause it's our territory," said Vaipulu.

Tonga's Navy is still at the reef and putting up navigational lights. The Tongan government told ONE News that if anyone interferes, action will be taken.

"The fact we've seen Navies getting into potential contact in the zone is pretty unhelpful frankly," said foreign Minister Murray McCully.

In a media statement, Fiji has attacked New Zealand and Australia accusing them of manipulating the Tongan government by offering gifts and aid.

"It's deeply insulting to Tonga, a country that has made significant strides in recent times, and now they (Fiji government) suggest they're cow-towing to New Zealand and Australia is very insulting indeed," said McCully.

Fiji's military Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is furious that one of his former military leaders, Lieutenant Colonel Tevita Mara, has now been allowed into Australia.

The official Fijian government website refers to Tongan Navy boats at Minerva Reef, adding that New Zealand and Australia are rolling out the red carpet for Mara, who fled to Tonga last month after being charged with sedition in Fiji.

The government website says Mara fled Fiji as a fugitive but was issued with a Tongan passport and both Australia and New Zealand appear willing to grant him a visa.

A decision on whether Mara will be let into New Zealand will be made this weekend.

The decision is awaited with mixed feelings, with some like Canterbury University's Malakai Koloamatangi saying that Mara should definitely not be allowed into the country, and the move would make a bad situation worse.

He suggests that New Zealand should act as mediator in the Pacific dispute.

TV ONE's Q+A programme will have the latest from Murray McCully and Lieutenant Colonel Tevita Mara from 9am tomorrow.