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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 21, 2000 – Post-Courier)---Negotiators will announce today whether or not PNG is willing to grant Bougainville full autonomy and a referendum on independence.

In a short statement yesterday, Bougainville Affairs Minister Sir Michael Somare refrained from making mention of these key issues, but said the discussions already under way for four days on Loloata Island had seen the exchange of several working papers, which were being worked on by technical officials.

The two parties had agreed on the preparation of a draft joint statement to be released when the talks resume this evening in Port Moresby, Sir Michael said.

"The joint statement will identify common understanding reached so far, discuss and resolve remaining differences, and agree on a timetable for further talks both at the officials’ and leaders' levels," he said.

Sir Michael is leading the PNG team while Bougainville Peoples Congress president Joseph Kabui heads the Bougainville delegation.

Both leaders said before the meeting on Thursday that proposals for the highest autonomy possible and for a referendum on independence were on the agenda for discussion.

The Bougainville delegation is hopeful the PNG Government can agree to these during the current talks, Mr. Kabui said on Friday.

"I am quietly optimistic that, judging from the way preparations have taken place since we last met in Buka and up to now, that something good is going to come out of this meeting," he said. "There has been a genuine move on the part of Papua New Guinea for us to look at real avenues to the peace process going.

"I'm confident something positive is going to come out of this. Two important things, on the issue of highest possible autonomy and a referendum there is agreement (for discussion),'' Mr. Kabui said.

"We in Bougainville are saying, give us all the powers which fall short of independence."

He said Sir Michael had last October assured them that, provided the Bougainvilleans negotiated as one team, the PNG Government was willing to discuss their requests.

Said Mr. Kabui: "We have met that challenge. The people of Bougainville are united; we have come up with a common negotiating position. That is why we are now sitting together, the four parliamentarians, Leitana (Council of Chiefs), the members of BPC. We now speak the one language."

He said his delegation also had the blessing of rebel leader Francis Ona to be at these talks.

Mr. Kabui said the issue of independence was something the referendum would sort out but this would come about at a later stage.

"It will be the autonomous government of Bougainville that will decide, of course, in consultation with the Government of Papua New Guinea," he said.

"Referendum is the only internationally accepted means of allowing people of conflicting views to sort out their problems, a democratic means to express themselves, because it is no use for me or Port Moresby super-imposing on the people of Bougainville.

"Let the people decide, let them make the decision, and then that will cut out any questions of ifs and buts."

Sir Michael said: "I've made it quite clear we're entertaining (the) question of autonomy and referendum at this meeting."

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

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