Special forces soldiers have quietly been deployed to Papua New Guinea as part of a massive Australian military and policing effort to help secure Port Moresby ahead of November’s APEC meeting of world leaders.
Senior Defence sources have confirmed elite Australian Army personnel are “on the ground”, amid concerns the impoverished nation’s military is not adequately equipped to control the large event.
World leaders including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as well as US Vice President Mike Pence, are all expected to attend the two-day summit.
“We have Australian Army and Australian Special Forces assisting the PNGDF (Papua New Guinea Defence Force), making sure the counter-terrorism provision of services is first class,” a senior member of the Special Forces Command said.
“We’re standing ready to support PNGDF to secure the APEC meeting and help PNG showcase the country to the world,” he added.
The ABC understands Royal Australian Navy warships will also be located off the PNG coast as part of Operation APEC Assist to protect cruise ships which will be used for temporary APEC accommodation.
Maritime security is a major focus for APEC security preparations, with Papua New Guinea’s maritime policing capabilities considered to be very limited.
It is feared cruise ships could be particularly vulnerable to terrorist strikes and will need the protection of Special Forces soldiers, who are highly skilled at boarding vessels at sea.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the deployment had been 18 months in the making.
He described the November summit as “a big challenge” for PNG.
“As you can expect, with so many world leaders coming together, the security and other arrangements that need to be in place need significant support,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
“I don’t think there’s any surprise or any real shock that we would be engaging in supporting them in this way.”
Defence earlier declined to publicly confirm the deployment of its secretive SAS and Commando units but noted “Operation APEC Assist” has been “at the request of the Papua New Guinea government”.
“As part of the Australian whole of government effort, the Australian Defence Force is providing advisory assistance to the PNG Joint Security Task Force, which has been established to provide a safe and secure APEC,” the Defence Department said in a statement.
Australian taxpayers are expected to pay a large portion of the costs of PNG’s ambitious plan to host APEC, partly to stave off rising Chinese influence in the nearby nation.
Details of the total costs of Australia’s security operations are not yet known, but Defence says it has “leveraged a large part of the $40 million annual Defence Co-operation Program in recent years, to enhance the PNG Defence Force’s major event security capability”.
“The final Defence contribution to Operation APEC Assist 18 is contingent on many factors, including future requests from the government of PNG,” the department said.