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CANBERRA --Australia says it is still holding an arms shipment that was originally bound for Papua New Guinea for use by foreign mercenaries against the Bougainville secessionists.

The arms shipment includes four Russian-built helicopters, rocket launchers, high explosive rockets, and a huge quantity of ammunition.

A Russian transport aircraft carrying the weaponry was diverted to the Australian Airforce base at Tindal, south of Darwin, on March 27 at the request of the PNG government. At the time it was considered unsafe for the aircraft to land in Port Moresby because of unrest in the capital over the government's mercenary contract with the British-based Sandline International.

The chief spokesman for the Australian Defense Force, Brigadier Paul Tys, said Tuesday the issue of ownership of the arms shipment was a matter to be resolved by the PNG government and the Sandline company. Brigadier Tys said the equipment was still in the state in which it was delivered. InApril, a PNG inspection team led by the PNG high commissioner in Canberra, Brigadier General Ken Noga, inspected the arms shipment which is being stored at Tindal air base under the control of the Australian Customs Service.

Pacnews Canberra bureau says a major problem involves the maintenance of the helicopters, two gunships, and two troop carriers. Neither PNG norAustralia has maintenance personnel with experience pertaining to the Russian-built machines.

Sandline claimed two months ago that unless the helicopters received specialized maintenance "within the next few weeks" vital parts could be seriously damaged.

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