The Sydney Morning Herald reports today that Papua New Guinea (PNG) requested assistance from Canberra, including electronic intelligence to pinpoint rebel radio broadcasts and body armour. But these requests were turned down. Australia believes there needs to be a politically negotiated solution to the crisis in Bougainville.
At least 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the nine-year separatist civil war in the island of Bougainville, according to unofficial figures compiled from PNG government sources for a report for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The rebel Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) demanded independence from Papua New Guinea after a dispute among indigenous landowners and the Australian operators of what was then the world's largest copper mine, Conzinc Riotinto Australia. CRA, one of Australia's biggest mining companies, is itself 49 per cent owned by Britain's RTZ. The people of Bougainville complained that the land had been stolen from them, and that the mine caused deadly pollution.
The rebels are largely armed with home-made rifles, salvaged machine- guns from crashed Second World War aircraft, and even bows and arrows. But despite their pathetic armaments, they forced the mine to close in 1989 and the government army retreated from the island nine months after that. The PNG army has been accused by natives and human rights activists of atrocities ranging from the burning of villages to rape and torture.
Australian newspapers have reported that the government had approved a A$36m (pounds 22m) covert operation to end the rebellion. Sources in Papua New Guinea have confirmed that over the past two weeks two Russian aircraft have been active between Port Moresby's Jackson Airport and the northern coastal town of Wewak.
The mercenaries are understood to be training at Moem Barracks near Wewak, from where the offensive on the BRA would be launched. The operation could also involve the freeing of five soldiers held captive for six months.
PNG's Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, said yesterday that media reports that his government planned to use mercenaries were inaccurate and sensationalist. But he confirmed that his government had hired Sandlines International to help train government soldiers. "Yes there is training going on at the moment, training for our under-equipped, under-trained and under-resourced security forces," he said in a statement.
Papua New Guinea Defence Force Chief-of-Staff Colonel Jack Tuat said the latest training was no different from that involving Australia, New Zealand and the United States. "We are occasionally bringing in people to train our guys on the use of new and specific equipment," Mr Tuat told Reuters.
But the reports have sparked a crisis in relations between Australia and PNG. "We would regard the use of mercenaries as an extremely unwelcome development in the South Pacific," John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, told parliament yesterday.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he had urged PNG last week not to use mercenaries, adding that such a move would significantly damage the country's international standing. "I will use any vehicle which is reasonable that I possibly can to try to stop this operation going ahead," he said.
"What I made clear to Sir Julius Chan and to other ministers ... was that if there was a resumption of any military activity on Bougainville, then it would be regarded by Australia as absolutely disastrous."
Poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea's willingness to commit A$27m in funds to a secret military adventure is bound to raise questions among donor countries and institutions. However, the Prime Minister said that Australia would not threaten to cut off its A$320m aid programme.