PNG welcomes Indonesia's move to join Melanesian group

SYDNEY - Papua New Guinea Thursday welcomed Indonesian President Joko Widodo's plan to join a Melanesian intergovernment group, calling it a historic move that will improve relations with the ethnic population in Papua.

The move came days after Widodo lifted decades-old reporting restrictions for foreign journalists in Papua and ordered the release of a group of political prisoners in the insurgency-hit province.

"This will be historic and a new level of engagement and opportunity for economic and cultural relations with more than 11 million Melanesians in Indonesia," PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said during a trip to Sydney.

The Indonesian leader visited PNG earlier this week.

O'Neill said his nation had "no visibility of what is happening in West Papua", so the Indonesian application to join the Melanesian Spearhead Group was "very important".

"I think it is a major step by any Indonesian president to allow this process to begin and I think we should take advantage of it and continue the dialogue with them and see where it goes," he added.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group has Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the French overseas territory of New Caledonia's independence movement FLNKS as members.

It was formed in 1986 to support the decolonisation process and help regional liberation groups, but has since evolved into a regional body discussing trade and security issues.

Widodo's move to remove reporting restrictions in Papua is seen as a sign he is easing the tight grip that Jakarta has long kept on the mineral-rich province, where poorly armed fighters have for years fought a low-level insurgency against the central government.

Widodo has taken a keen interest in Papua, pledging to improve livelihoods in the heavily-militarised area which lags behind other parts of Indonesia in terms of development.

Five political prisoners convicted over a 2003 raid on an Indonesian military weapons arsenal were granted clemency by Widodo.

There are still regular bouts of violence in Papua, where insurgents are fighting on behalf of the mostly ethnic Melanesian population.

Jakarta took control of Papua, which forms half of the island of New Guinea, in 1963 from former colonial power the Netherlands.