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Nauru walkout overshadows Pacific Islands Forum

Ben McKay -

On the remote island of Aitutaki, the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting will reach a crescendo - but without one member.

Nauru President David Adeang travelled to Cook Islands for the summit, but threw a diplomatic fit on Thursday (AEDT), choosing not to accompany his counterparts to the all-important leaders retreat.

"They're not here and they have their reasons," Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr said.

The Micronesian state walked out of a plenary meeting on Thursday when their controversial choice to be the next Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) secretary general, Baron Waqa, was raised.

Attempts to coax Mr Adeang back inside the tent failed and the Nauru delegation flew out from the Cook Islands on Friday morning, as reported by TVNZ.

Nauru's abrupt exit raises the prospect of another nasty rift in the forum.

Anthony Albanese arrives during a welcome ceremony the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Cook Islands.

Last year, another Micronesian nation - Kiribati - announced it had left the 18-nation body, returning only after peace talks yielded significant concessions to Micronesia.

One part of the deal was the right to pick the next PIF secretary general, Mr Waqa.

Mr Adeang and Mr Waqa are reportedly linked to an Australian Federal Police corruption probe into a phosphate dealer Getax, with the ABC reporting the pair took funding from the company.

The pair were instrumental in sacking the country's judiciary, who were Australian, in 2014, and have repeatedly restricted media freedom in their country, leading critics to call Mr Waqa unfit to lead the forum.

Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and other PIF leaders have declined to comment on Mr Waqa's candidacy, leaving the topic to the leaders retreat.

How leaders handle this situation, both Mr Adeang and Mr Albanese included, will be critical to whether PIF remains the region's primary international body.

Mr Albanese said he didn't see the walkout and the group appeared unified to him.

The Australian prime minister has joined the remaining leaders to spend the day on a boat on Aitutaki's luminescent lagoon, discussing the region's issues in private.

Mr Waqa's candidacy has rocketed up the agenda, which also includes climate change, nuclear issues, and a proposal from Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka to re-badge the Pacific as a "zone of peace".

"I've got a good supporter, prime minister Albanese," he said on Friday.

The PIF summit has already been hit by the non-attendance of leaders from four of the biggest six members: New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, who have sent ministers.

Mr Rabuka said it was a shame Mr Adeang decided not to travel to Aitutaki.

"They should have been here," he said.

Mr Whipps Jr said Nauru's Micronesian colleagues would pick up the slack.

"They said, 'You represent us', so we're here as Micronesia," he said, suggesting the rift could be mended.

"Maybe just a misunderstanding, but we'll get through it."

Ben McKay - AAP


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