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Biden implies his uncle was eaten by cannibals, Papua New Guinea leader takes offence

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape, left, listens during a meeting with Pacific Islands Forum leaders during the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit in the East Room of the White House, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape, left, listens during a meeting with Pacific Islands Forum leaders during the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit in the East Room of the White House, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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MELBOURNE, Australia -

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape accused Joe Biden of disparaging the South Pacific island nation by implying that an uncle of the U.S. president had been eaten by “cannibals” there during World War II.

Biden’s comments offended a key strategic ally as China moves to increase its influence in the region.

The president spoke at a Pennsylvania war memorial last week about his Army Air Corps aviator uncle Second Lt. Ambrose J. Finnegan Jr., who he said was shot down over Papua New Guinea, which was a theater of heavy fighting.

“They never found the body because there used to be — there were a lot of cannibals for real in that part of New Guinea,” Biden said, referring to the country’s main island.

Marape said in a statement on Sunday that Biden “appeared to imply his uncle was eaten by cannibals.”

“President Biden’s remarks may have been a slip of the tongue; however, my country does not deserve to be labelled as such,” Marape said in a statement provided by his office to The Associated Press on Monday.

“World War II was not the doing of my people; however, they were needlessly dragged into a conflict that was not their doing,” Marape added.

The rift comes as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese began a visit on Monday to Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbour. Albanese and Marape will commemorate strong defence ties between the two countries by walking part of a pivotal battleground known as the Kokoda Track later this week.

“I’m very confident that PNG has no stronger partner than Australia and our defence and security ties have never been stronger,” Albanese told reporters before departing Australia.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday Biden was speaking to the bravery of his uncle and the many U.S. service members that put their lives on the line.

"He takes this very seriously. His uncle, who served and protected this country, lost his life serving. And that should matter," she said.

Biden's account that Finnegan's plane was shot down was not supported by military records. Finnegan was a passenger on a Douglas A-20 Havoc transport plane that crashed into the ocean after both engines failed on May 14, 1944, according to a Pentagon report.

One crew member survived but no trace was found of the plane or three other people on board, including Finnegan.

Marape's statement was released on the same day he met China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Port Moresby to discuss building closer relations.

Marape also called on the U.S. to find its war dead in Papua New Guinea's jungles and to clean up the wreckage of war.

"The remains of WWII lie scattered all over PNG, including the plane that carried President Biden's uncle," Marape said.

“Perhaps, given President Biden’s comments and the strong reaction from PNG and other parts of the world, it is time for the USA to find as many remains of World War II in PNG as possible, including those of servicemen who lost their lives like Ambrose Finnegan,” he said.

“The theatres of war in PNG and Solomon Islands are many, and littered with the remains of WWII including human remains, plane wrecks, shipwrecks, tunnels and bombs. Our people daily live with the fear of being killed by detonated bombs of WWII,” Marape added.

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