School torched in Maori land row

Wellington - Police arrested 15 people yesterday as Maori demonstrators burned down an old school building in the latest of a spate of bitter protests over disputed land.

New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, spoke of his outrage at the behaviour of the demonstrators, who resisted up to 100 police when they moved in to enforce an eviction order, and said he would not allow "a few hotheads" to set the political agenda. Maoris criticised the government for its handling of the dispute, the latest in a series of confrontations which have highlighted racial tensions in New Zealand.

An Auckland University lecturer, Margaret Mutu, said Maoris, about 13 per cent of the 3.5 million population, were increasingly frustrated with the failure to resolve historic grievances over the loss of ancestral land. "I know there is a very strong mood in Maoridom now. We have waited patiently for the Crown to settle our claims," she said.

A radio reporter at the scene said protesters, including children, used torches to light a series of fires. Thick black smoke billowed from car tyres stacked outside the old school near Kaitaia, on the North Island.

Police said they arrested nine men and six women on charges of assault, trespass, obstruction and dangerous driving, and also detained two youths, aged 10 and 13, who were caught lighting diesel-soaked tyres.

One Maori opposition politician, Tau Henare, said ministers were partly to blame because of their refusal to tackle the dispute, which had rumbled on for more than six months.

Maoris have more than 500 claims outstanding for the return of lands they argue were confiscated by European settlers in breach of an 1840 treaty with the British. The government is struggling to win acceptance of a proposed NZ$1bn (pounds 430m) settlement package but refuses to discuss growing Maori demands for sovereignty, saying there can be only one state and one parliament.