AUCKLAND (AFP) – In a persistent diplomatic nightmare, the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga is being linked to the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, observers say. The nation of just 109,000 people has acquired notoriety for get-rich-quick-schemes, but this time Nuku’alofa could incur Washington’s wrath. The Washington Post newspaper on Tuesday quoted US intelligence officials as saying bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network was moving operatives around the Mediterranean on a shipping fleet flagged in Tonga. Quoting US and Greek officials, it said the shipping firm – which is called Nova and is incorporated in Delaware and Romania – has for years engaged in smuggling illegal immigrants. The Post said US intelligence officials have identified approximately 15 cargo freighters around the world that they believe are controlled by Al Qaeda or could be used by the terror network to ferry operatives, bombs, money or commodities over the high seas. Tonga’s role goes back to 2000 and the arrival in Nuku’alofa of Greek Peli Papadopoulos, who said he represented Axion Services Ltd in Piraeus. He persuaded authorities to allow him to run Tonga International Registry of Ships (TIRS) out of Athens. Last January, Israeli commandos seized Karine A, a Tongan-flagged ship, in the Red Sea and found it was carrying 50 tons of mainly Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Palestinians. In February, eight Pakistanis jumped off Tongan ship Twillinger at Trieste, after a trip from Cairo. The Post said US officials have since determined that Al Qaeda had sent the men. In June, Tonga said TIRS was to be closed down. «The TIRS had also not lived up to commercial expectations,» chairman of a cabinet committee, Noble Fielakepa said in a statement.