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Embarrassed Australia tries to calm South Pacific storm

As Alexander Downer, Australia's Foreign Minister, embarked on a visit to the South Pacific, his mandarins at home were preparing to discipline two officials yesterday over the publication of a highly secret government document whose insulting comments about Australia's Pacific neighbours, including New Zealand, have severely embarrassed Canberra.

Prepared by officials in the capital, drawing on Australia's intelligence agencies and marked "top secret", the document described some Pacific island nation political leaders as "crooks", "drunks" and "lickspittle", and made disparaging comments about New Zealand's role and influence in the Pacific region.

The document was drawn up as a confidential briefing paper for Australian ministers attending a conference, in northern Queensland last month, of finance ministers from member countries of the South Pacific Forum. It has so infuriated Fiji that the country's new Foreign Minister, Berenado Vunibobo, announced before Mr Downer's departure for the Pacific last Saturday that he would refuse to receive him. The document made uncomplimentary remarks about Mr Vunibobo personally and about his political style.

Mr Vunibobo relented only after pressure from Sitiveni Rabuka, Prime Minister of Fiji.

Ten years after leaving the Commonwealth , Fiji is seeking re-admission at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Edinburgh in October. Its acceptance requires unanimous endorsement from Commonwealth members. Australia and New Zealand have signalled their willingness to support Fiji's re-admission, and Fiji is anxious not to upset its chances by risking a further diplomatic breach.

Mr Downer, though, will be welcomed in Suva, the Fiji capital, through gritted teeth. Asked about the row before he left Australia at the weekend, he said: "[Mr Vunibobo] wants to put the whole issue of the South Pacific documents behind him and that is certainly the view of the Prime Minister of Fiji. We are delighted that the Fiji government is taking that constructive view, and I think that all goes very well for my visit."

The document's contents appeared in Australian newspapers after three journalists arrived to register at the July conference in Cairns. When an official went to obtain their media passes, the journalists noticed documents on the table and picked them up, assuming they were press releases.

The document asserted that New Zealand wanted "to differentiate itself from Australia" and "to act in ways which complicate Australian diplomacy". It added that "many officials and politicians in Wellington [the capital] still like to believe that New Zealand, because of its smaller size, [and] links to Polynesia ... is part of the Pacific in a way that Australia is not".

The Marshall Islands, acting chairman of the forum, and the Federated States of Micronesia were headlined as "Imprudent Micronesians". The Cook Islands and Nauru were in a category called "Bottom of the [economic] heap". Papua New Guinea, Australia's northern neighbour, was lumped with two other nations under a heading "Melanesian Mayhem".

The decision to discipline the Canberra officials came after an inquiry into the affair headed by Australia's inspector-general of intelligence and security. The Australian press has described the affair as Australia's most serious security blunder in years.