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Pacific: Minerva Reef - Sailors Warned Away

By Sue Richards last modified Jun 17, 2011 01:54 PM

Published: 2011-06-17 13:54:25
Topics: Cruising Information
Countries: Fiji , New Zealand , Tonga

As reported by Sail-World.com

Cruising sailors are being advised to stay away from Minerva Reef, one of their favourite stopping places in the Pacific, between the islands of the South Pacific and New Zealand.

The Reef consists of two atolls, one of which is an almost perfect circle. It boasts pristine waters and safe anchorage, and has an amazingly colourful history. Now it's in the news again, and all because of the escape of a high profile Fijian politician who took refuge in Tonga.

The Fijians, recognising that Minerva Reef is a sore point with Tonga, who claims ownership of the remote reef, placed one of their warships in the lagoon of the remote atoll, much to the anger of the Tongans. This week two Tongan navy patrol boats returned from the atolls claiming that they had chased away a Fijian Navy warship they found in the lagoon.

Tonga first claimed the two unpopulated Minerva Reefs in 1971 after an American tried to create a republic on them. The Pacific Forum recognised the Tongan action, but Fiji did not. Last year Tonga erected a beacon at a lagoon popular with yachties heading to and from New Zealand, but the Fijians destroyed it.

However the Tongan government is now warning yachts to avoid the area after Fiji ordered away a number of vessels away from the reef and announced it would use whatever force necessary to protect the territory.

"The best thing to do is not to go there for the time being until we get our differences solved with Fiji," Samiu Vaipulu, Tonga Deputy Prime Minister told ONE News.

Rod Alley from the Centre for Strategic Studies said Fiji was using this dispute to "flex their muscles" and to "to show their neighbours… that Fiji can stand in its own corner and declare its interests."

"There's upwards of 400 boats a year coming into New Zealand from the islands…I would say at least half of them would consider Minerva Reef as a stop," David Howie, Yachting website editor told ONE News.

Fiji and Tonga have now gone to the United Nations for help to avoid a potentially serious situation.

Background to the fracas:
The Minerva dispute is being seen by diplomatic sources as an attempt by Suva to divert attention from the tensions building within Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama's regime. Since Mara, one of his top soldiers, fled to Tonga to avoid sedition charges, the powerful Mara family has been openly acting against Bainimarama.

Mara is a son of Fiji's founding prime minister and president, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Last month Tonga ship Savea intruded into Fijian waters to pick up the fleeing colonel. Although Suva demanded Mara be sent back, Fusimalohi has confirmed they have given him Tongan citizenship and a passport and he was in Australia.

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