PNG escalates spy row, brings in Israelis

(AAP)

Papua New Guinea will summon Australia's High Commissioner to explain Australia's position on spying in PNG.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Papua New Guinea will summon Australia's High Commissioner to explain Australia's position on spying in PNG.

And the country is working with Israel to boost its intelligence capabilities.

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has told PNG Parliament that Australia should respect his country's sovereignty, and tapping phones without authority was illegal.

Indonesia's President has frozen relations with Australia as a result of the claims Australia spied on him and his inner circle, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has over the weekend sent him a letter of explanation.

Stefan Armbruster reports.

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

Just as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has responded to the Indonesian President's demands for an explanation for tapping his phone, now Papua New Guinea too wants an explanation.

PNG is Australia's closest neighbour, host of the Manus Island asylum-seeker centre and recipient of $500 million a year in aid.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill was asked in Parliament on Friday by a junior government minister what he knows of the allegations.

"Is he is aware of the details of the spying and if he could advise the house of it?"

Mr O'Neill's response was unequivocal.

"I expect that Australia will respect our sovereignty, the rights of individuals, especially the tapping of phones without the proper legal clearance to do so is illegal and we expect our friends to respect our laws."

Mr O'Neill said he had instructed Foreign Affairs Minister Rimbink Pato to summons the Australian High Commissioner to PNG, Deborah Stokes, to provide an explanation.

"I've advised the minister that he will also bring this matter up next month at the ministerial forum, that there is a firm agreement between the two countries that there will be no intelligence-gathering from the two countries from here onwards. So that agreement must be firmed up and agreed to."

Michael Wesley, Professor of National Security at the Australian National University, says Mr O'Neill's comments will put further pressure on the Australian government.

"It's certainly put the issue on the agenda in PNG and there will be people who will be interested in the outcome so there's no question that this is an escalation and an uncomfortable escalation from the Australian point of view."

Professor Wesley says it is part of the continuing fallout from leaks by former United States intelligence agent Edward Snowden.

"Obviously it affects pretty much every government in the region that could be construed as being within the Australian range of operations and Peter O'Neill being a democratically elected leader, needs to demonstrate to his constituents that he's taking this problem seriously."

Australia has been accused of spying in PNG in the past.

In the 1980s, leaked documents exposed the Defence Signals Directorate's phone tapping operation called Reprieve, based in Australia's High Commission offices in PNG, Indonesia and Thailand.

After the leak, operation Reprieve was reportedly shut down immediately.

Then PNG Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, who is part of the current O'Neill government, complained to then-Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who gave assurances no telephone bugging was occurring.

Current PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has told Parliament if Australia would like to know anything, all it has to do is ask.

"Listen, I've always stated that if anyone wants to participate in any of our conversations, theycf0 ,just need to ask, they don't need to, they don't need to come in uninvited."

Mr O'Neill also told Parliament that Israeli officers are already doing a "gap analysis" of Papua New Guinea's intelligence operations to expand its operations.

Last month Mr O'Neill visited Israel and signed an agreement on cooperation, including for defence and intelligence.

Professor Wesley says it could signal a move to be less reliant on Australia in future.

"It probably reflects quite a prudent desire to increase the spread of their security partnerships to make sure they're not too dependent on any one security partner."

SBS has requested comment from the Australian government, but has not yet received a response.

 

Source SBS Radio

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