A day after a retired colonel seized Papua New Guinea’s military headquarters in an attempt to force out the prime minister, the ex-soldier was holed up in a nearby barracks on Friday, demanding a pardon for himself and his supporters.
A small group of soldiers led by retired Col. Yuara Sasa put the military’s top commander under house arrest Thursday in a bloodless, pre-dawn takeover, but later that day prime minister Peter O’Neill said Brig. Gen. Francis Agwi had been released and remained in charge of most of the military. O’Neill said Sasa had been “dealt with,” but did not say how.
The mutiny was part of a power struggle in which O’Neill and former prime minister Michael Somare claim to be the rightful leader of the South Pacific island nation.
On Friday, police said Sasa was at Taurama Barracks in Port Moresby, near the military headquarters, with about 20 supporters. Police spokesman Dominic Kakas said Col. Sasa had asked for a pardon.
“That is correct, yes,” Kakas said. “They are trying to sort something out.”
On Thursday, Sasa had told reporters in Port Moresby he was giving O’Neill seven days to comply with a Supreme Court order reinstating Somare as prime minister. The government responded by calling on Sasa’s group to surrender and saying the mutiny had little support.
Deputy prime minister Belden Namah told reporters Thursday that about 30 soldiers were involved in the mutiny and that 15 of them were arrested. Namah said Sasa could be charged with treason, which carries the death sentence.
Australian prime minister Julia Gillard condemned the mutiny, saying in a written statement that the military has no place in Papua New Guinea’s politics. Australia is the main provider of foreign aid to its former colony.
“It is critical therefore that this situation be resolved peacefully as soon as possible, with the PNG Defense Force chain of command restored,” she added.
Somare was Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister when it became independent in 1975, and was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elisabeth II.
Papua New Guinea’s Parliament replaced him with O’Neill in August, while Somare was getting medical treatment outside the country.
Last month, the country’s Supreme Court and Governor-General Michael Ogio backed Somare, who the court ruled was illegally removed. But Ogio changed his mind days later, saying bad legal advice had led him to incorrectly reinstate Somare.
Sasa, who was Papua New Guinea’s defense attache to Indonesia before retiring from the military, has said Somare appointed him defense chief. Somare’s spokeswoman and daughter, Betha Somare, said that his ousted Cabinet had confirmed Sasa’s appointment several days ago. She did not respond to a request for comment on Friday’s developments.