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By Harlyne Joku

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 20, 2000 – The National)---The National Government was expected to present its response to the Bougainville leaders' counter-offer yesterday -- which proposes the highest possible form of government autonomy and an independence referendum for Bougainville -- at the third round of political talks on the island province’s future.

But as of late yesterday afternoon, officials said that only technical meetings were held at Loloata Island Resort outside Port Moresby since Friday and real negotiations were yet to begin.

The talks may continue to tomorrow, they said.

The Loloata talks follow on from the March 6 meeting in Buka where Bougainville leaders rejected the Government's proposal outlining a practical framework for autonomy on Bougainville.

They had given the Government a counter-offer suggesting the highest possible autonomy and an independence referendum.

Bougainville People's Congress president (BPC) Joseph Kabui told The National on Friday that he was hopeful that the Government would be flexible in its response to their counter-offer.

"Let us avoid terms like 'not negotiable' on issues and be more flexible. I think the PNG Government will be willing to consider a referendum. The highest possible form of autonomy and a referendum go hand in hand," said Mr. Kabui.

"It is possible to achieve a referendum. What has differed in views is the timing of holding the referendum. PNG does not want to discuss a referendum for now but perhaps 10 years down the line."

Mr. Kabui said all these issues as well as an alternative form of interim government would be discussed at Loloata and Port Moresby.

"We're taking on board what Sir Michael said in October about setting up our government with its own powers on policing, administering, economy, etc. but having foreign affairs/defense force, etc, handled by the National Government," Mr. Kabui said.

He again stressed that Bougainvilleans were looking in the long term at independence. But he added that this would take place some years down the line.

"The important thing is to hold a referendum and let the people decide," he said.

He said separatist leader Francis Ona was happy as long as the issue of a referendum was discussed.

"Our immediate concern now is setting up a government that would deliver services to the people," said Mr. Kabui.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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