Papua New Guinea to recruit Australia police in security deal - minister

APEC summit in Bangkok
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By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Papua New Guinea will recruit Australian police officers for key positions in its national police force under a wide-ranging security deal to be signed this week that also covers defence and biosecurity, Papua New Guinea's minister of state said.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape will travel to Canberra on Thursday to sign the security agreement, his office said.

"The security arrangement is in the best interest of Papua New Guinea and also for Australia and its regional security interests," Marape said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Australian security agreement was delayed after backlash from some opposition PNG politicians to a defence deal with the United States in May that they said infringed on PNG sovereignty by giving access to ports and airports, and could embroil the Pacific Islands' largest nation in strategic competition between the U.S. and China.

China formed security and policing ties with the neighbouring Solomon Islands last year. PNG, a few kilometres to Australia's north, is also being courted by China amid rising tensions between the two major powers.

"This shows our commitment to Australia as one of our traditional security partners now and into the future," Minister of State Justin Tkatchenko told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Defence and internal policing are a major part of the security agreement with Australia, while respecting PNG sovereignty, along with assisting farmers to meet Australia's stringent biosecurity rules and boosting biometric technology for airports, Tkatchenko said.

"Respecting each other is the big thing," he added.

The Australian Federal Police and the defence minister's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the security agreement.

PNG police have this year struggled with a surge in violent crime, and Marape has pointed to law-and-order concerns and said boosting security would help to attract foreign investment in PNG's burgeoning resources sector.

"Its a big issue and Australia can help us out considerably," said Tkatchenko, who began negotiations with Australia on the deal last year.

The agreement includes an option for Australian police to work directly for the PNG Royal Constabulary on contract, he said.

"The positions will be advertised for expatriate or qualified international police officers to fill about 50 positions throughout the country, from police station commanders to heading the CID (criminal investigation department) or fraud squad and so on," he said.

In 2005, a PNG court ruled that Australian Federal Police deployed to PNG should not have the powers of local police, or immunity from prosecution, and since then Australian police have only deployed in unarmed advisory roles.

"These officers will wear PNG uniform. They will be contracted officers reporting directly to the police commissioner of Papua New Guinea and they will be under all the laws of PNG. That was always the sticking point," he said.

Australia will also boost training for PNG police.

The security negotiations recognised PNG's sovereignty as a nation that won independence from Australia 48 years ago, while appreciating Australia's role as the region's largest economy, he said.

"What we want is economic independence, where we can rely on ourselves into the future," he added.

Help to meet Australia's strict biosecurity guidelines will open new export markets for PNG, which produces coffee and other agricultural products as "the oldest living gardeners or agriculturalists in the world".

France, which this week pledged $100 million to PNG for forestry and climate change, is also boosting defence cooperation with Australia in the Pacific and earlier this year signed an agreement giving its navy access to patrol PNG waters.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Miral Fahmy)