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SYDNEY, Australia (March 31, 1998 - PACNEWS)---Australia could be forced to double the number of unarmed troops and civilians on Bougainville because New Zealand no longer can afford to pay the rapidly increasing bill for leading the peace operation.

The rugged conditions on the island and the length of the peace operation has stretched New Zealand's ability to sustain its 154-strong civilian and military contingent just as the parties to the decade-old conflict prepare to make the crucial transition to a formal cease fire, The Australian newspaper reports.

New Zealand's plans to shift responsibility to Australia will cause Australian personnel to increase from 100 to more than 200, or about two army companies. The Australian defense force would also need to supply more land vehicles, communications equipment and possibly transport aircraft.

It would also place Australia in command of the Bougainville operation when it converts from a so-called Truce Monitoring Group to a Peace Monitoring Group on April 30. After that date, New Zealand proposes to reduce its forces to less than 40, but the move is yet to be endorsed by either the Papua New Guinea government or the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and has raised concerns over the risk of destabilizing the hard-won peace.

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