5 Mar 2007

Vanuatu Chiefs disagree with State of Emergency timing after tribal fighting

8:05 pm on 5 March 2007

Vanuatu's National Council of Chiefs says the government's decision to declare a state of emergency in the capital following deadly clashes at the weekend should have been a last resort.

The conflict between people of Tanna and Ambrym islands at the Blacksands settlement on the fringe of the capital left two men dead, and several people seriously injured.

The two-week state of emergency has bolstered the police presence on the streets and their power to use firearms, and restricts movement in and around the capital.

It also forbids public meetings in Port Vila, which prevents the National Council of Chiefs holding immediate mediation talks between the tribes.

The Council's secretary general Selwyn Garu says this and other avenues should have been explored first.

"The State of Emergency is like preparing for a cyclone that has already passed. What we really need to do is to look at the damages and see what we can do to reconcile it, and that is not, for me, what the government is really doing. The State of Emergency thing will affect the country - I mean, tourism - for really no good reason at all. Because if you come to port Vila now, it's peaceful, as if nothing has happened in the last few days."

Vanuatu's Minister for Internal Affairs has expressed disappointment at the slow response by the police paramilitary wing, the Vanuatu Mobile Force, to the clashes.

George Wells has admitted community leaders are justified in criticising the VMF leaders but has defended the mobile force itself.

Mr Wells says the VMF officers were prepared to act, but were not instructed to in time.

The whole problem is not the VMF. The VMF had been ready to take action at 3 o'clock, because I had signed an order for use of firearms at 3 o'clock. The trouble started at 4 o'clock. So the full VMF in the camp, they were already on stand-by. But the problem is the orders should come from the high officers, like the acting commissioner and the commander of the VMF to give orders for the operation to start. That's the problem that happened on Saturday.

George Wells says he wants an inquiry be held into why the order for the VMF to act took so long.

He says so far, police have arrested 138 people, mostly from Tanna.