Rebels Keep Papua New Guinea Mine Closed

A LONG-ANTICIPATED leadership challenge to Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu is fading. On Tuesday a no-confidence vote was withdrawn by opposition leader Paias Wingti just before Parliament opened. It was out of ``respect'' for Mr. Namaliu's communications minister, Malipu Balakau, assassinated on June 30, Mr. Wingti says.

But political observers here say the opposition lacks the votes to topple Namaliu. And, the opposition is in no hurry to take on the challenges the prime minister faces - particularly those on Bougainville Island.

Namaliu's salvation and single greatest source of political discomfort is the economic crisis created by the Bougainville copper mine shutdown. Rebels at the mine are demanding independence for Bougainville Island and $12 billion as payment for environmental damages.

Bougainville, one of the world's largest copper mines, provides 17 percent of the government's operating revenue and 40 percent of its export income. But for nearly two months, militant landowners have kept the mine closed by acts of sabotage.

For every day the mine is shut, the government and the Australian mine operator, Bougainville Copper Ltd., both lose about $3 million.

The Papua New Guinea (PNG) government just announced an immediate $56 million cut (about 8 percent of annual operating funds) in public spending due the mine closure.

The rebels have refused Namaliu's offers for financial compensation and better living conditions. On June 26, the prime minister declared a state of emergency on the island. Roadblocks and curfews are in place. Public meetings are banned. Villages near the mine and mine access road are being evacuated.

Troops and police numbering 2,000 plan a full-scale military assault on the militants hiding in the jungle. The security-forces commander, Col. Lima Dotaona, says the landowners rebellion will be crushed within a month.

But military analysts say it won't be an easy task. Much of the island is mountainous and jungle covered. During World War II, a handful of Australian coast watchers on Bougainville eluded thousands of Japanese troop's for months. The militants, calling themselves the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, know the terrain well, and can easily move among the local population without being recognized.

The Army is said to be considering the use of napalm to clear the jungle.

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