Papua New Guinea rejects mutineers' demand

 

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill refused to step down despite a mutiny Thursday by soldiers who seized Papua New Guinea's military headquarters and demanded that he cede power to his ousted predecessor.

Soldiers led by retired Col. Yuara Sasa put the military's top commander under house arrest in a bloodless, pre-dawn takeover that was part of the power struggle in which both O'Neill and former Prime Minister Michael Somare claim to be the rightful leader of the South Pacific nation.

Sasa told reporters in Port Moresby that O'Neill had seven days to comply with a Supreme Court order reinstating Somare "or I will be forced to take actions to uphold the integrity of the Constitution."

O'Neill later declared he was fully in charge and implied Sasa had been arrested.

"This government does not answer to one man calling on us to recall Parliament," O'Neill told reporters, adding that Parliament would resume on Feb. 14 as scheduled. O'Neill appears to have the support of a majority of the country's lawmakers.

He said he remained in control of the nation, including the armed forces, and that Sasa had been "dealt with," but would not elaborate.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that it believed Sasa had been detained.

O'Neill said the military commander, Brig. Gen. Francis Agwi, who was released from house arrest within hours of the mutiny, remained in charge of most of the military. Earlier, the government had called on Sasa's group to surrender and said the mutiny did not have broader support.

Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah told reporters that about 30 soldiers were involved in the mutiny and that 15 of them have been arrested. O'Neill said they had withdrawn from the military headquarters but did not give details.

Australian Associated Press reported up to 80 soldiers were involved.

Namah accused Somare of using "rogue soldiers to pursue his own greed and selfishness" and said Sasa could be charged with treason, which carries the death sentence.

Sasa, who was Papua New Guinea's defense attache to Indonesia before retiring from the military, told reporters he had been legitimately appointed defense chief by Somare.

Somare's spokeswoman and daughter, Betha Somare, said that his ousted Cabinet had confirmed Sasa's appointment several days ago.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard condemned the mutiny, saying in a written statement that the military has no place in Papua New Guinea's politics. Australia is the main provider of foreign aid to its former colony.

"It is critical therefore that this situation be resolved peacefully as soon as possible, with the PNG Defense Force chain of command restored," she added.

Somare was Papua New Guinea's first prime minister when it became independent in 1975, and was knighted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Papua New Guinea's Parliament replaced him with O'Neill in August, while Somare was getting medical treatment outside the country.
Last month, the country's Supreme Court and Governor-General Michael Ogio backed Somare, who the court ruled was illegally removed. But Ogio changed his mind days later, saying bad legal advice had led him to incorrectly reinstate Somare.

AP

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