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Two PMs and rival police chiefs leave Papua New Guinea in chaos

By Kathy Marks

Papua New Guinea, the resource-rich, volatile Pacific nation to Australia's north, is entering a fourth day of political chaos today, with two men vying to run the police force, two men – each with his own cabinet – claiming to be the prime minister, and a governor-general dumped for taking sides.

Armed police patrolled the capital, Port Moresby, yesterday amid fears of civil unrest in a city notorious for its "raskol" gangs. One of the police commissioners, Tom Kulunga, called for calm as a 7.1-magnitude earthquake jangled nerves in the already tense country, a former Australian mandate and member of the Commonwealth. No damage from the quake was reported.

The political crisis was triggered by a Supreme Court ruling on Monday reinstating the nation's elder statesman, Sir Michael Somare, as prime minister. Sir Michael, who has dominated PNG politics since independence in 1975, was ousted in August while recovering from heart surgery in a Singapore hospital. Parliament installed Peter O'Neill in his stead.

Yesterday, following the court ruling, the Governor-General, Sir Michael Ogio, swore in the Somare cabinet and was promptly sacked by MPs loyal to Mr O'Neill. They appointed the parliamentary Speaker, Jeffery Nape, to replace him; Mr Nape then swore in Mr O'Neill as prime minister. Undeterred, Sir Michael, 76, who has been holding cabinet meetings in a beachside hotel in Port Moresby, continued to declare himself the country's legitimate leader.

The confusion was compounded by the existence of two rival police commissioners: Mr Kulunga, appointed by Mr O'Neill, and his predecessor, Fred Yakasa, reappointed by Sir Michael on Monday. Mr Kulunga urged officers to "be neutral, uphold the rule of law and remain focused on protecting and serving the people".

Although PNG politics are often turbulent, with governments toppled as MPs switch allegiance, the current crisis is unprecedented. The Australian Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, said he was "deeply concerned".

On Tuesday, gunfire was heard as Mr O'Neill and his supporters, outraged by the court decision, stormed a police barricade outside the Governor-General's residence. No one was hurt. In parliament, Mr O'Neill refused to relinquish the government benches.

PNG-watchers say voters are fed up with all politicians, accusing them of corruption and of profiting from a massive resources boom – PNG has vast stores of oil, gold and copper – while ordinary people struggle to eke out a subsistence living.

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