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Papua New Guinea in crisis over rival leaders

AP News
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Posted: Dec 13, 2011 10:54 PM
Papua New Guinea in crisis over rival leaders

Papua New Guinea's government was in crisis Wednesday, with veteran leader Sir Michael Somare claiming to have been reinstated as prime minister and ousted Prime Minister Peter O'Neill refusing to give up power despite a court order.

The power struggle is unprecedented for the former Australian territory, which is rich in mineral resources including oil, gold and copper and crops such as coffee and cocoa.

The country's Supreme Court and governor-general have backed 76-year-old Somare, who the high court ruled was illegally removed as prime minister while getting medical treatment outside the country. But O'Neill's lawmakers continued to pass legislation recognizing him as leader.

The battle between the two rivals escalated on Tuesday, when lawmakers backing O'Neill stormed the governor-general's gates a day after the Supreme Court ruled O'Neill's election by parliament in August unconstitutional and said Somare should be reinstated as prime minister.

Somare said Wednesday that his Cabinet had been sworn in by Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio, who represents British Queen Elizabeth II _ the South Pacific nation's head of state. Somare insisted he did not need to be sworn in himself, because the Supreme Court had already reinstated him as prime minister.

"It is regretful that all of government was put on hold, but this situation has been diffused by the swearing-in today of my Cabinet," Somare said in a statement.

The crisis, however, appeared far from over Wednesday, with lawmakers loyal to O'Neill passing a motion ordering Ogio to swear in O'Neill as prime minister. O'Neill could not be reached for immediate comment.

On Tuesday, O'Neill said he met with Ogio briefly after about 60 of his loyal lawmakers stormed through a police cordon around Ogio's official residence in the capital, Port Moresby.

"We are unarmed, and we're the legitimate government," Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio quoted the lawmakers as telling police.

The Supreme Court's 3-2 decision Monday ruling O'Neill's election unconstitutional came after O'Neill's government passed a series of retroactive laws legalizing its decision to dump Somare from office while he was in Singapore recovering from a heart condition.

One of Somare's first acts when the Supreme Court ordered his return to power was to reinstate former Police Commissioner Fred Yakasa and oust O'Neill's appointee, Tom Kulunga. Both police chiefs were present at the governor-general's home and held discussions with lawmakers loyal to O'Neill.

Somare has based himself at the popular Ela Beach Hotel, where he has set up a Cabinet made up mostly of ministers from his previous government.

Somare had been in Singapore for five months between late March and Sept. 6, when he returned to parliament after undergoing three heart operations.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin said the former Australian colony had entered uncharted waters through the two leaders making claims for the prime ministership.

Australia and Papua New Guinea share an important trade relationship: Australia is Papua New Guinea's top export market, as well as its top source of imports. Papua New Guinea relies on Australia for fuel, food and cars.