SYDNEY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea police are seeking the return of nearly 300 imported cars loaned to officials for driving world leaders around its capital during last year's Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation meeting, a commander said on Tuesday.
The purchase of the fleet, including 40 slick Maserati Quattroporte sedans, sparked public protest in a country beset by poverty, and potholes, and the government had promised to auction the cars after the November summit.
"There are 284 vehicles ... that were issued to personnel to use during APEC that haven't been returned as yet," said Superintendent Dennis Corcoran, who heads the State Asset Recovery Unit.
The vehicles include Landcruisers, Fords, Mazdas and Pajeros, he said, but not the luxury marques, which have been tracked down and recovered.
"All 40 of the Maseratis and the three Bentleys are in top condition and locked away in the old wharf shed down on the main wharf," Corcoran said in a telephone call from Port Moresby.
He said police knew that nine cars were stolen, parts had gone missing and some of the returned cars were "pretty seriously damaged".
The South Pacific archipelago of 7.3 million people pulled out all the stops at the APEC summit, hoping to put itself on the world map and lure investment. Aid money poured in from China and Australia to prepare for the event.
But it was the images of the Maseratis being unloaded at the airport, even as the government grappled with a polio outbreak, that proved a lightning rod for public anger.
Government spokesman Chris Hawkins said a global event had to be hosted properly, and added that many of the vehicles not yet returned were either in government lots or being used by paramedics, firefighters and other public servants.
Police believe six of the nine stolen cars are still around Port Moresby, while three have found their way to Mount Hagen, in the country's rugged highlands. Corcoran was confident of finding them because he has a master list of who signed them out.
"Basically, I know where all 284 vehicles that I've got to collect are," he said.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)