PNG leader slams Australian plans to open Bougainville mission

PNG leader slams Australian plans to open Bougainville mission
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill gives a talk at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on May 14, 2015.

SYDNEY - Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill Thursday said he was "shocked" at an Australian plan to set up a diplomatic post in Bougainville, a politically sensitive autonomous region expected to hold a referendum on independence.

Australia announced on Tuesday it would open five new overseas missions as part of this year's national budget, including one at Buka in resource-rich Bougainville.

"We were shocked to learn from the budget documents that Australia is planning on establishing a diplomatic post in Bougainville," O'Neill said on a visit to Sydney.

"I want to say that there has been no consultation on this proposal and there is no agreement to proceed," added O'Neill. "As we respect the territorial integrity of others, we expect others to respect ours as well."

He said that the region was a historically and politically sensitive area for PNG, with Bougainville voters expected to elect authorities in June who will call for a referendum on independence from the country as part of a 2001 peace agreement.

Under the agreement, Bougainville was promised the right to hold an independence referendum between 2015 and 2020.

It followed an almost decade-long, bitter guerrilla war beginning in 1988 that claimed 10,000 lives.

The separatist conflict was the bloodiest in the Pacific since World War II, and ended when the New Zealand government helped broker a truce signed by all factions in 1997.

An Autonomous Bougainville Government was established in June 2005 as part of a United Nations-sponsored process.

O'Neill said that PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato was requesting more information about Australia's proposal.

Pato Thursday described the plan as "outrageous" and "mischievous".

"I've directed the acting secretary to call in the Australian high commissioner to explain the media accounts of this mischievous proposal to open a foreign mission on Bougainville," Pato said in a statement, local media reported.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insisted the matter was discussed with the PNG government during a visit she made to the country last December.

"Australia has a significant and growing development programme in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which is almost 50 per cent higher than 2012/13, and will continue to partner with the PNG government in supporting economic growth throughout PNG," her spokeswoman said.

Bougainville is home to the giant Panguna copper deposit. A Panguna mine run by Bougainville Copper, a subsidiary of Australian-listed Rio Tinto, was forced to close in 1989 during the conflict.

Rio Tinto has said the PNG government as well as Bougainville's leadership were supportive of restarting operations at what is one of the South Pacific's largest mines for copper and gold.

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