PNG’S CIVIL WAR VIRTUALLY OVER

By Michael J. Field

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (April 29, 1998-Agence France-Presse)--- Four foreign ministers and dozens of diplomats will leave here before dawn Thursday aboard two military Hercules aircraft to seal a fragile peace on the war torn Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, scene of a nearly 10 year long civil war.

The will fly into the wrecked Aropa airport and travel on to the former capital of Awara where at least 20 speeches are to be given before a peace treaty is signed between the PNG Government and the rebel Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and its political wing, the Bougainville Interim Government.

Almost certain the be absent is the man who founded the rebel movement, Francis Ona, who is holding out against peace.

But highly place sources told Agence France-Presse (AFP) here that Ona was in talks Tuesday with four PNG Members of Parliament and has indicated that while he will not join the peace process, he will not oppose it.

Significantly, one of the first speakers at the ceremony with be the BRA commander, Sam Kauona.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon arrived here Wednesday to join Fiji Foreign Minister Bernando Vunibobo and, together with PNG Foreign Minister Roy Yaki and Vanuatu's Associate Foreign Minister Clement Leo, will fly to Bougainville to witness the peace treaty signing.

Prime Minister Bill Skate is already on the island and is understood to be seeking a one-on-one meeting with Ona.

Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Vanuatu have contributed to the unarmed Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) on the island and in Parliament here Wednesday diplomatic protocols were signed over the replacement Peace Monitoring Group.

Downer, after the signing, said Australia regarded the peace process as "something truly historic," which Australia w as prepared to help in any way.

"In the end, the success or failure of the Bougainville peace process is going to depend on the people of Bougainville themselves," he said.

"This is their peace process, and if they want peace, peace will be theirs. The overwhelming majority of people on Bougainville are crying out for peace. This is a wonderful opportunity, after nine long years of conflict, for Bougainville to be restored to peace."

Vunibobo hailed the people who had negotiated the truce and "particularly Australia and New Zealand for the lead role they have taken."

Yaki said PNG was made up of 700 different languages and tribes and had a system of "pay-back" which involved revenge by one for injustices from another.

"It is a tribute to the people of PNG that all provinces have suffered under this crisis, one way or the other. People have been killed, soldiers have been killed from all of the provinces, yet our people have demonstrated restraint, quite uncharacteristic of the pay-back system."

McKinnon, who brokered the truce which broke the deadlock over the war, said the people of Bougainville are "enthralled by the process" of peace making.

Earlier, on arrival, he was asked why New Zealand was pulling troops out of the TMG and was handing over leadership to Australia.

"Fifteen months ago we realized that New Zealand was capable of being a catalyst. We don't have the resources to carry the very heavy load after about a year.... New Zealand will still be there. We are not walking away."

The war was sparked by claims over the environmental damage caused by the Panguna copper mine owned by the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto company.

McKinnon said the cost of re-opening the mine was enormous, around half a billion dollars.

"Some day the mine may open. It will probably be a decade away," McKinnon said.

Later he clarified this by saying that in the peace process Panguna was off the agenda and was no longer an issue to Bougainville. He stressed New Zealand had no interest in the mine's fate.

But he said the economy of the island would have to be labor intensive and based on agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and some day tourism.

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