On Sept. 4, the Bougainville Copper Mine - one of the largest in the world - was opened for the first time since militant landowners shut it down more than three months ago. It appeared Papua New Guinea's security troops had secured the region near the mine. But the mine only stayed open one day.

It closed again after two buses loaded with mine workers was hit by gunfire and a power pylon was blown up. Early Monday morning, John Bika, a senior provincial official, was assassinated in his home. Rebel landowners are suspects.

The landowners are demanding secession for the copper-rich island. Mr. Bika headed a committee seeking solutions to the Bougainville crisis. Recently, Bika's committee offered greater autonomy via statehood. The suggestion was rejected by the rebels.

This is the first attack on a government official and has dashed hopes that the mine will be reopened soon. Bougainville is crucial to the developing nation's economy. It provides about 40 percent of Papua New Guinea's export earnings.

Power to the mine has been restored. But the Australian company which operates the mine, CRA Ltd., says the mine won't be reopened until worker safety can be guaranteed.

Bika's murder has resulted in the postponement of a $225 million community development and compensation package for landowners near the mine. Foreign minister Michael Somare says ``tougher'' action is needed. Military forces, pulled back as a good-faith measure during recent negotiations, are expected to resume assaults on rebel camps.

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