PNG ex-commander 'seizes' control of army

2012-01-26 10:00

Port Moresby – A retired military commander in Papua New Guinea (PNG) on Thursday claimed to have seized control of the country's armed forces and demanded that ousted prime minister Michael Somare be reinstated.

Retired colonel Yaura Sasa held a news conference at military headquarters in the capital, Port Moresby, to declare himself leader following what media reports described as a "mutiny" at the city's Taurama barracks.

"My task is restoring the integrity and respect of the constitution and the judiciary," Sasa told reporters at the commander's office.

"I am now calling on the head of state to immediately implement the Supreme Court decision relating to Sir Michael Somare's position as the prime minister."

Sasa demanded sitting Prime Minister Peter O'Neill recall parliament and set a seven-day deadline for MPs to reinstate Somare as leader.

"I cannot allow this situation to continue to prevail... If this call is not heeded I may be forced to take necessary actions to protect and uphold the integrity of the constitution."

History of violence

Sasa would not comment on what sorts of actions he was referring to.

The resource-rich but impoverished country has a history of violence and intrigue and has been struggling to throw off its reputation as a politically dysfunctional and often lawless nation.

Somare, aged 75, was removed from office while out of the country recovering from illness last year only to later be declared the rightful leader by the Pacific nation's Supreme Court, throwing PNG into political turmoil.

O'Neill eventually resumed the prime ministership after Governor General Michael Ogio admitted he had been wrong to reappoint Somare leader following the Supreme Court ruling.

At the height of the crisis PNG had two prime ministers, two governors-general, two cabinets and two police chiefs.

Somare has consistently refused to recognise O'Neill's leadership, storming into the nation's parliament as recently as last week with the Supreme Court's order and demanding he be reinstated.

Restoring integrity

Known as the "Grand Chief", Somare led PNG for almost half of its 36 years of independence.

Though he was appointed by Somare, Sasa - formerly PNG's defence attaché to Indonesia - said he was a "neutral" party.

He denied his actions were a "military coup" or takeover, describing them instead as the "normal process of replacement of commander by the government".

"The most important task is to restore the integrity and respect for the constitution and the judiciary of the independent state of Papua New Guinea," Sasa said.

"I assure the international community, our investors, this is not a military coup. I am intervening to uphold the constitution and I have my intentions made known and that the two parties comply with this promptly."

O'Neill's office was unable to immediately comment on Thursday's military unrest but Australia's foreign office confirmed that there had been "disturbances" at Port Moresby's military barracks.

Discussions under way

"We are concerned about these developments overnight in Port Moresby," a foreign office spokesperson said.

"We urge that the situation be resolved as soon as possible, and that the PNGDF chain of command is restored."

O'Neill had assured Australia's ambassador that "authorities were taking steps to manage the situation" and the Australian defence attaché had also spoken to Commander Francis Agwi, who was deposed in the mutiny, she added.

"We understand that discussions are underway within the PNGDF to resolve the matter," Australia's foreign office spokesperson said.

Sasa said he had met with Agwi and served him with documents from the government rescinding his appointment, with an official handover of duties to take place later on Thursday.

He denied Agwi was under house arrest or that any threats had been exchanged.

But PNG Defence Force chief of staff Captain Tom Ur told Radio New Zealand Agwi remained in charge and negotiations were underway with what he described as a small faction of disaffected Sasa supporters.