Papua New Guinea Moves Against Secessionist Rebels

THE government of Papua New Guinea is blockading Bougainville Island in an attempt to force secessionist rebels into negotiations. But the tactic may backfire. ``The BRA [Bougainville Revolutionary Army] is furious. This is one of the most illogical and insensitive steps the national government can take. It only adds fuel to their demand for secession,'' says provincial premier Joseph Kabui. Mr. Kabui is a BRA sympathizer reached by telephone before telecommunications in and out of Bougainville were cut on Saturday.

The sanctions - formalizing an air and sea blockade already under way - were announced last week in Port Moresby while PNG Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu was in the United States.

An initial declaration of a 50 nautical-mile exclusion zone around the island has been reduced to a 12-mile zone covering PNG territorial waters.

Bougainville Island is the site of one of the world's largest copper mines. It was the federal government's biggest source of revenue. Militant landowners first shut the mine down 18 months ago demanding US$10 billion in compensation for environmental damages. Their campaign evolved into a secessionist war.

More than 100 people died before a cease-fire in March led to the withdrawal of government troops. Peace talks set to begin April 23 stalled over rebel demands they be held on Bougainville.

Just before the official declaration of the blockade, Kabui says the BRA had indicated a willingness to meet at a neutral location.

Justifying the hard-line stance, Deputy Prime Minister Ted Diro said, ``We can't continue to expend money for the welfare and benefit of people defying our instructions ... These people are living in a dream world. The fact is no country will recognize secession.''

Only medical supplies and fuel for the Arawa General Hospital will be allowed through the blockade.

Bougainville residents say fuel supplies are low. They expect electricity will be cut in the next two to three weeks. Canned foods and rice are almost gone. ``It looks like we'll have to go back to village life: eating sweet potatoes, taro, fish, and possum and cooking over fires,'' says a cheerful woman reached by phone in Arawa. ``No one will go hungry.''

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank approved $152 million in aid to assist the PNG government through its financial crisis. PNG is already Australia's largest aid recipient. Australia's Foreign Minister Gareth Evans visited PNG last month and Prime Minister Bob Hawke plans to visit in late May. Canberra officials say Papua New Guinea's problems rank as its No. 1 foreign policy concern.

Major Australian mining firms have significant investments in the mineral-rich former Australian colony. International mining firms are spending US$500,000 a day on mining and oil exploration in the country, says Prime Minister Namaliu. The prime concern is that the Bougainville complaints may spread. Landowners at other mining sites regularly threaten similar militant actions.

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