Peace Talks in
By Lindsay Murdoch, Herald
Correspondent in Hong Kong
Peace talks aimed at ending Bougainville's war will go ahead in New Zealand this weekend despite a security flap over fears that Papua New Guinea sent a hit-squad to the Solomon Islands last month to assassinate leaders of the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).
A spokesman for Australia's Foreign Minister, Mr Downer, confirmed last night that the Solomon Islands raised concerns with Australia about the presence of PNG nationals who arrived unexpectedly in Honiara for "undisclosed purposes" while rebel leaders were staying at a rundown motel in the town.
Sources in Honiara said two small groups of PNG nationals, including men claiming to be bricklayers who had an association with officials of the PNG High Commission in Honiara, prompted the move by the Solomon Islands.
Mr Downer's spokesman said Australia asked PNG about the group but was subsequently told by the Solomon Islands Government that it accepted the men were in Honiara for "bona fide purposes". The spokesman declined to comment on any assassination threat or disclose any further information, saying: "All that is an intelligence matter and I am not going to comment."
The rebel leaders, whose accommodation bill was being picked up by Australia, found out about the arrival of the PNG men through their own intelligence network and asked two Australian peace negotiators, Mr Leo White and Mr Mark Plunkett, to pass on their fears. The rebels were ready to launch a counter-attack if any attempt was made to kill any of the virtual entire leadership staying at the motel.
In the most significant breakthrough for peace in years, New Zealand's Foreign Minister, Mr Don McKinnon, announced yesterday that representatives of the BRA, its political wing, the Bougainville Interim Government, and the PNG-appointed Bougainville Transitional Government would attend the weekend talks at Burnham army camp, near the south island city of Christchurch.
While the rebels' reclusive political leader, Mr Francis Ona, will not go to New Zealand, the BRA is expected to be represented by its military commander, Mr Sam Kaouna, Mr Ona's next-in-charge, Mr Joseph Kabui, and other rebel leaders.
Up to 20 representatives from both sides are expected to travel to New Zealand but, despite the likely presence of several PNG politicians, the PNG Government will not formally take part in the talks. Australian officials say the rebels' decision to go to New Zealand indicates their willingness to negotiate to end the war that has cost the lives of up to 12,000 people since the late 1980s.
Previous efforts to include the rebels in
peace talks have failed because of fears for their
safety. In 1995, rebels returning by boat to Bougainville
from Australian-sponsored talks in
Earlier this year, two PNG men found with guns in their hotel room in Honiara were forced to leave the country. Government officials said they suspected that the men were in the Solomon Islands to try to kill rebels, who often seek medical care and refuge in Honiara.
won't attend peace talks in NZ
Papua New Guina National Newspaper
The leader of Bougainville's secessionist rebels, Francis Ona, has bailed out of peace talks scheduled to be held in New Zealand early next week, ruling out the prospect of serious headway being made.A spokesman for Mr Ona said the New Zealand Government, which brokered the talks to be held at Burham Army Base outside Christchurch, had been informed of the decision.
The meeting will bring together the PNG
Government-backed Bougainville Transitional Government
(BTG), the rebels' political arm the Bougainville Interim
Government (BIG), and rebel military commanders.BIG
vice-chairman Joseph Kabui said the talks were
preliminary, but Mr Ona's absence did not mean he was
opposed to them.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon said they had offered to host the talks following approaches from Bougainville groups and discussions with the PNG Government. "This is a step along the path towards settlement of their differences with the Papua New Guinea Government," Mr McKinnon said, adding "It should not be assumed there is a quick-fix solution to the situation in Bougainville."
BTG Premier Gerard Sinato said they would send a 25-member delegation including their own representatives, members of women's groups and local chiefs. The talks would start early next week and run for two weeks, he said.
Mr Sinato also clarified that the two
Australian lawyers who conducted a training course on the
island had nothing to do with the forthcoming talks. He
said the course which was conducted in Buka for BTG
leaders and representatives from churches and NGOs, had
nothing to with the talks, which he said were purely for
The rebels' Sydney-based spokesman, Moses Havini, said the talks could help establish a consensus position before the new PNG government is formed later this month. He said the four newly-elected Bougainville MPs had also been invited to the talks. They are: Bougainville Regional member John Momis, North Bougainville member Michael Ogio, South Bougainville member Michael Laimo and Central Bougainville member Sam Akoitai.
A spokesman for Mr Momis said he would be too involved in trying to negotiate the next PNG government to attend the talks straight away. However, he may fly to New Zealand later. BIG leader Joseph Kabui said the New Zealand Government had been "very accommodating" and had set no time limit on the talks.
"We are particularly looking forward to talking with our brother Bougainvilleans," Mr Kabui said. He added he hoped New Zealand could provide his delegation with winter clothing. "It will be a bit hard for us coming from the tropics." He also hoped they might all be able to go to the rugby union test between Australia and New Zealand in Christchurch on Saturday night. "We might be able to see it, we all like rugby," he said. - AAP and AFP