Maori rage wrecks NZ treaty celebrations

Radical Maoris, angry about a government plan for the final settlement of their land claims that they regard as a trick, yesterday wrecked New Zealand's national-day celebrations at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands, with violent protests. The Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, called off the ceremonies, in which he and other ministers were to have paid tribute to Maori-European co-operation, after police said they could not guarantee his safety.

Protesters tried to set fire to the country's most historic building, spat at the Governor-General, stamped on the New Zealand flag, stopped Mr Bolger speaking by unplugging his microphone and threw punches at the government's top Maori official, accusing him of collaborating with "the enemy".

Seven cabinet ministers dropped plans to meet Maori leaders and hear their grievances after a forum set up to avert the protests was hijacked by militants who demanded that one of their number chair the meeting. The traditional evening session of speeches was abandoned on police advice after protesters ran up a Maori independence flag on the hallowed Waitangi treaty-ground flagpole.

Mr Bolger said he was forced to cancel the proceedings. Maori radicals have protested on Waitangi Day for years but it was the first time the government had called off the ceremonies.

The Prime Minister later questioned whether the national-day celebrations would continue to be held at Waitangi, where Maori chiefs signed a treaty ceding sovereignty to Queen Victoria 155 years ago. He dubbed the protesters' actions a disgrace to the Maoris and said: "Coming to Waitangi each year to argue and trade insults is pointless. Until there is reasonable discussion, the country cannot live together in peace."

The day began with a 3am arson attack on the wooden house where the treaty was signed in 1840. A petrol bombed missed a window and the resulting fire only scorched paint before it was put out by guards.

About 400 protesters who attacked the government's land- claim settlement proposal and demanded a sovereign Maori state by the year 2000 delayed the arrival of the official party, headed by the Governor-General, Dame Cath Tizard.

When the party was seated, successive Maori speakers reviled her and the government in speeches while others performed hakas (war dances). One speaker spat at Dame Cath, while a demonstrator trampled on the New Zealand flag. When Mr Bolger rose to speak,he was heckled and someone unplugged his microphone.

One protester threw punches at Wira Gardiner, head of the the Ministry of Maori Affairs, calling him a "nigger" for serving in the government. Mr Gardiner was given a police escort off the grounds after protesters threatened more violence.