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CANBERRA, Australia (June 11, 1999 - PACNEWS/Radio Australia)---Australia will begin negotiations soon on the gradual withdrawal of its peace monitors on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said unarmed monitors have been on the island since November 1997, and should not become a permanent fixture.

Australia contributes 245 of the 300 monitors to the Peace Monitoring Group (PMG). Officials suggest their slow withdrawal may take another 12 to 18 months.

In a statement to Parliament, Downer said the monitors from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Vanuatu have been vital to the peace process.

"Given positive developments in the peace process, the Government plans to discuss shortly with its PMG partners a strategy for the phased reduction in the PMG and its eventual withdrawal," Downer said.

"In making any reductions we will be careful not to jeopardize the considerable gains already made. Numbers will not be reduced too quickly and changes will only be undertaken following close consultation between all the relevant players."

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