New Zealand suspends Tonga aid over Chinese plane fears

WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand said on Wednesday it had suspended a multi-million dollar aid programme in Tonga over safety concerns stemming from the Pacific nation's plans to use a Chinese-made plane for domestic services.

There were concerns about the safety certification for the MA60 aircraft and a NZ$10.5 million (S$10.6 million) tourism development programme was on hold until they were resolved, a spokesman for Foreign Minister Murray McCully said.

"I can confirm that the programme has been suspended," she told AFP.

The MA60 turboprop, built by China's AVIC Xian Aircraft Industry Company, has been the subject of a number of safety scares in recent months.

Myanmar grounded its MA60 fleet in June after two incidents where aircraft skidded off runways, while Indonesia ordered special checks on its fleet after one crash-landed in the country's east.

No one was seriously injured in those accidents, but 25 people died in May 2011 when an MA60 operated by Indonesia's Merpati crashed in West Papua province.

The Tongan MA60 is a gift from the Chinese government and arrived in the island nation last weekend.

The government intends to lease it to a new airline called Real Tonga, set up to service popular tourist destinations in the outer islands after New Zealand-based operator Chathams Pacific withdrew earlier this year.

The Matangi Tonga news website reported that the government had promised the aircraft would not be allowed to fly until it fully complied with international aviation standards.

New Zealand is one of Tonga's main aid donors, although China has played an increasing role in recent years, with much of its assistance coming through so-called "soft loans" that have a five-year interest-free period.

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