Papua New Guinea leader defends nation after Biden's 'cannibals' comment

The prime minister of Papua New Guinea defended the Pacific Island nation after President Joe Biden appeared to imply that his uncle’s body was eaten by “cannibals” there during World War II, urging the United States to clean up the remnants of the conflict in the region.

“President Biden’s remarks may have been a slip of the tongue; however, my country does not deserve to be labeled as such,” Prime Minister James Marape said in a statement Sunday, referring to Biden’s comment about cannibals.

Speaking at an event in Pennsylvania last week, Biden said that his uncle, Army Air Corps aviator Ambrose J. Finnegan, had been “shot down in New Guinea.”

“They never found the body because there used to be — there were a lot of cannibals, for real, in that part of New Guinea,” he said.

U.S. military records about Finnegan’s death make no mention of the aircraft being downed or of cannibalism, saying the plane was forced to ditch in the ocean off the north coast of New Guinea for unknown reasons and that the three men killed in the crash were never found.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates did not address Biden’s apparent mischaracterization but told NBC News in a statement last week that Biden was “proud of his uncle’s service in uniform who lost his life when the military aircraft he was on crashed in the Pacific after taking off near New Guinea.”

The Asia-Pacific was a theater of heavy fighting during World War II, with the remains of bodies, plane wrecks, shipwrecks, tunnels and bombs still littering Papua New Guinea and other countries more than seven decades later. Marape pointed out that residents live in daily fear of being killed by unexploded ordnance. “World War II was not the doing of my people; however, they were needlessly dragged into a conflict that was not their doing,” he said.

Marape said many unsolved mysteries of World War II remained in the seas, mountains and jungles of Papua New Guinea.

“I urge President Biden to get the White House to look into cleaning up these remains of WWII so the truth about missing servicemen like Ambrose Finnegan can be put to rest,” he said.

Biden’s comments appeared to offend a key U.S. strategic ally in the southwestern Pacific Ocean as it competes for influence in the region with China, which already has a security pact with the neighboring Solomon Islands. The U.S. signed a security pact with Papua New Guinea last year.

Marape met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is visiting this week.

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