Rebel Leader Demands New Papua New Guinea Gov't

Published January 26, 2012 3:54AM (EST)

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (AP) — Rebel soldiers seized the military's headquarters Thursday and replaced Papua New Guinea's top defense official with their own leader, who gave Prime Minister Peter O'Neill a week to step aside for his ousted predecessor.

The self-proclaimed new leader of the country's defense forces, retired Col. Yaura Sasa, insisted he was not mounting a coup. But he warned that the military will take unspecified action unless O'Neill stands down and former prime minister Sir Michael Somare, is reinstated, as the national Supreme Court ordered last month.

"Both Sir Michael Somare and O'Neill have seven days to implement the Supreme Court's orders to resolve the current political impasse or I will be forced to take actions to uphold the integrity of the Constitution," Sasa told reporters in Port Moresby, the capital.

The new crisis comes during a turbulent period for the South Pacific's most populous island nation, where both O'Neill and Somare claim to be the rightful prime minister.

Between 12 and 20 soldiers overpowered guards at the Taurama Barracks in Port Moresby before dawn, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported, citing an unnamed senior source in the Papua New Guinea defense force. The rebel soldiers then moved to the military headquarters at Murray Barracks and placed the head of the Papua New Guinea Defense Force, Brigadier General Francis Agwi, under house arrest. There were no reports of bloodshed.

Sasa, who last served as Papua New Guinea's defense attache to Indonesia before retiring from the military, told reporters he had been legitimately appointed defense chief by Somare.

Somare could not be immediately contacted for comment on Thursday.

O'Neill had told Australia — Papua New Guinea's former colonial master and main provider of foreign aid — that "authorities were taking steps to manage the situation," Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

O'Neill was expected to hold a press conference later Thursday.

There has been a power struggle in Papua New Guinea since August, when Parliament appointed O'Neill prime minister in Somare's absence.

Last month, the country's Supreme Court and Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio backed Somare, who the court ruled was illegally removed as prime minister while getting medical treatment outside the country.

But Ogio changed his mind days later, saying bad legal advice had led him to incorrectly reinstate Somare.

Australia, which has the largest diplomatic mission of any country in Port Moresby, called for Agwi to be reinstated.

"We urge that the situation be resolved as soon as possible, and that the PNGDF chain of command is restored," the foreign affairs department said in a statement.

By Salon Staff

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