Pacific neighbour backs Samoa PM-elect in power struggle

Koror (Palau) (AFP) –


Palau became the second Pacific nation to back Samoa's Prime Minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata'afa on Thursday, as the wider international community remained non-committal on a bitter power struggle taking place in the islands.

Palau President Surangel Whipps offered "heartfelt congratulations" to Mata'afa, who was sworn in on Monday in a tent after loyalists to the previous government locked the doors of parliament in a bid to stop her assuming power.

In a letter to Mata'afa, Whipps said he supported the rule of law and welcomed her as only the second woman in the Pacific islands to lead a national government.

"As a fellow democratic government, we are saddened by the difficulties you've experienced with your installation as prime minister and we pray for a swift and peaceful transfer of power," he said.

The only other country to formally recognise Mata'afa's government is the Federated States of Micronesia, with diplomats elsewhere hedging their bets to see if her predecessor Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi clings on to power.

Malielegaoi has refused to concede he narrowly lost an April 9 general election, insisting he remains leader of the nation of 220,000 despite the vote and a string of election-relation court decisions that have gone against him.

Mata'afa accused Malielegaoi, who has been in power for 22 years, of abusing the constitution because he could not bear to leave office honourably.

"The law-breaking ex-prime minister and his weak and complicit officials have also undermined the dignity of this land and all of its people... and that shame and that stain will be upon their hands forever," she said in a statement late Wednesday.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said the world body "stands ready to provide support to Samoa if requested by the parties".

But the UN has refused to take sides, calling for dialogue, with other regional players such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom taking a similarly cautious approach.

China, which enjoys close relations with Malielegaoi and had looked at bankrolling a major port project for his government, said it would abide by its policy of "non-interference in internal affairs".

The legal manoeuvring in the wake of the vote continued Thursday when Malielegaoi's supporters attempted to have Samoa's top judges barred hearing their election challenges due to alleged bias.