Papua New Guinea rebels pick PM challenger

Port Moresby (AFP) –


Papua New Guinean lawmakers have chosen a former finance minister critical of a multi-billion-dollar natural gas project to challenge Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

Rebel lawmakers, many from O'Neill's party, announced they had selected James Marape -- who resigned from the cabinet last week -- as their alternate PM.

O'Neill is expected to face a vote of no confidence tentatively scheduled for May 16.

Opponents say they are just a few votes short of the number needed to depose the eight-year veteran prime minister after a string of ruling party defections.

Marape has been a vocal critic of a vast liquified natural gas project backed by Total and ExxonMobil and worth as much as $13 billion, raising questions about its future.

The Papua LNG project would almost double Papua New Guinea's gas exports, but local communities have complained bitterly about not benefiting from similar deals in the past.

Marape, who is from the influential Hela province, resigned citing differences on "work and policy related matters" as well as the lack of local "participation in our gas, oil sector" and mining industry.

One of Asia's most impoverished nations, Papua New Guinea is rich in natural resources including large gas fields.

Marape "was elected unopposed and will now challenge Peter O'Neill for the top post for next Thursday's vote", said opposition lawmaker Bryan Kramer.

"The numbers are extremely close, now that the alternative government camp have made their decision on their nominee you can expect movement today."