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Maoris defy land deadline

Wanganui (Reuter) - More than 1,000 Maori protesters defied a deadline yesterday to end their month-long occupation of a public garden in the North Island town of Wanganui which they claim as ancestral land.

The New Zealand government was also battling to avoid a race crisis on a second front as a top politician offered to resign amid accusations of racism over two hoax calls he made to radio shows when he masqueraded as a jobless Maori.

In Wanganui, 100 miles north of Wellington, Maoris celebrated the expiry of the local council's deadline for them to leave the Moutoa Gardens. As darkness fell, a band played and and there was a festive atmosphere among the 1,000 supporters from around the country.

In Wellington, John Carter offered to step down as parliamentary business manager for the governing National Party after impersonating a jobless Maori in the two hoax calls to radio shows.

The government turned down his resignation, provoking outrage and scorn.

"Does that answer mean that the performance of a racist hoax is acceptable behaviour for members of this government?" the opposition Labour Party leader, Helen Clark, demanded.

Mr Carter admitted he had called a radio show hosted by a cabinet minister, John Banks, masqueraded as a Maori called Hone, "free riding" on unemployment benefit. It also emerged he had made a similar call to another radio station. Maoris expressed disgust. "I think John Carter has just let Maori people know what the government really thinks about them," the Maori commentator Derek Fox said.

In the Wanganui dispute, Mayor Chas Poynter said that the local council would take the dispute to the High Court, while keeping up a dialogue with the protesters. The local council urged the government to step in and help resolve the issue. Maoris, who make up 13 per cent of New Zealand's 3.5 million population, have been vociferous in opposing government plans to set a NZ$1 billion (£404m) ceiling on claims for land confiscated by the whites since 1840.