Australia, New Zealand exempt from Solomons naval ban

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Australia and New Zealand are exempt from a ban on foreign naval visits to Solomon Islands, the country's prime minister said Monday as he flagged an end to the moratorium.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said a review of the makeshift ban was "progressing very well. We do not expect the temporary moratorium to last for a long time".

Solomon Islands suspended visits from all foreign navies last week, citing a need to review approval processes, after a US coast guard was unable to refuel at its port.

But when questioned in parliament on Monday, Sogavare said that the pause did not apply to military ships involved in the Solomons International Assistance Force -- which includes Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Vessels deployed as part of this mission -- established after deadly riots in Honiara late last year -- will be granted exemptions, he said.

He also said vessels taking part in planned illegal fishing patrols, or responding to direct requests for assistance from the Solomons, could be allowed to dock during the moratorium.

Two weeks ago, US Coast Guard ship Oliver Henry opted to turn away from Honiara, capital of the Solomons, after a lengthy delay in reply to their request to dock.

The HMS Spey, a British naval patrol vessel, also left Solomons waters before getting a late answer to their docking request.

When asked about the Oliver Henry incident, Sogavare said it had not been refused permission but instead opted to leave "prior to being informed of approval" to dock.

He said the "temporary" ban was because the Pacific nation had seen "a sudden increase" in requests for visits by military vessels.

"In many cases, service requests are made at short notice and there is expectation that all requests will always be approved," Sogavare said.

"Each request needs proper assessment, including of the benefits and risks to Solomon Islands."

He told parliament the review was nearly complete.

Sogavare has deepened his South Pacific nation's ties with China, and faced street protests against his decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

After widespread rioting in Honiara and demands for his ouster last year, his government signed a secretive defence pact with Beijing that -- according to a leaked draft -- allows him to call in Chinese security forces to quell unrest.

Last month, Sogavare's office accused Western media organisations in the Solomons of "spreading anti-China sentiment".

A statement issued by the office threatened to ban or deport reporters for "disrespectful and demeaning" coverage and said some foreign media were trying to "engineer regime change".

al/dva