A South African company accused of providing mercenaries to regional governments said yesterday that it would help train Papua New Guinea's military.
A statement from Executive Outcomes, the Pretoria-based company that employs former members of the South African military, said it was sub- contracted by Sandline International of the United Kingdom to provide aircraft, equipment and specialised training to Papua New Guinea forces.
In its statement, Executive Outcomes acknowledged the training it would provide was part of a government strategy "to reach a lasting solution to the ... crisis in Bougainville".
Executive Outcomes has previously provided military advisers and security forces in Angola and Sierra Leone. While the company denies that it sends mercenaries, its people on the ground have been known to take part in fighting.
"They are out here to build up the capabilities of our defence force," said Sir Julius Chan, the Papuan Prime Minister, adding that the decision to use mercenaries was taken 18 months ago. "They would be taken in only as an advisory team, but we would not use them in the frontline. We are no fools. We are a government, and no government would allow their citizens to be killed by foreigners."
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday that he thinks "a mer- cenary strike" is planned against the Bougainville rebels. Rebels have been fighting a guerrilla war since 1988 on Bougainville, a copper- rich island 800 miles north-east of the capital of Port Moresby.
Mr Howard told a meeting of MPs that he became aware last week of a plan to use mercenaries in the nine-year-old conflict on Bougainville. "He [Mr Howard] said it's obviously a very serious situation," a government spokesman said.
Meanwhile, hospitals in northern Australia were put on alert for casualties from any increase in the fighting on Bou-gainville island. Papua New Guinea is Australia's closest neighbour. Sir Julius said on Monday that the option of using non-government soldiers to help train his military had been canvassed in a defence paper drawn up in consultation with Australia. But Alexander Downer, the Australian Foreign Minister, rejected this claim.
"Australia was not advised by PNG of its intention to hire mercenary forces," he told parliament. "The Department of Defence has not suggested at any stage that mercenaries have a role to play in PNG's security."
A bi-partisan motion lodged in the Australian parliament yesterday condemned the mercenary plan. The motion, to be debated next month, urged Australia to warn Papua New Guinea that the use of mercenaries would "prejudice our bilateral relationship".