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CANBERRA, Australia (December 14, 1997 - PACNEWS)---Papua New Guinea's senior drought relief coordinator, Peter Barter, says PNG's drought could last until April or May next year with possibly one million people facing starvation.

He said the drought, coupled with the closure of two of the country's main mines, a slump in gold prices, and the Asian currency crisis, had caused significant long-term economic damage to PNG.

Barter said it was estimated that up to 500 people had died from drought-elated illnesses such as diarrhea, respiratory problems, and malaria.

"The estimates are difficult to qualify. The number of deaths could be as high as 1,000. I don't know."

Barter was speaking in Canberra at a news conference Thursday in support of an appeal by the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL) and the non-government aid agency CARE Australia for funds to buy relief supplies for PNG.

The appeal launched last month has suffered as a result of the videotape affair involving PNG Prime Minister Bill Skate in alleged corrupt activities.

Barter admitted that Australians have not given as freely as they might have because of PNG's political problems. A spokesman for CARE Australia told journalists that there had been a huge fall-off in interest in the appeal by the public in recent weeks as a result of the Skate videotapes.

"It's tragic that this should happen at a time when the level of need is enormous," he said.

The RSL and CARE Australia are about to launch a major national campaign to publicize the appeal in the lead-up to Christmas. A television clip shows Papua New Guineans helping Australian troops during the Second World War. The caption reads: "They paid with their lives to save Australia. This is our chance to save them."

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