By Norm Dixon
"As we are talking, the fight is still going on between the BRA [Bougainville Revolutionary Army] and the soldiers", Bishop John Zale, a senior leader of the Bougainville Interim Government, told Radio Australia from Honiara on July 29.
"The PNGDF have been moving into the central areas, especially around Manetai [a village just 16 kilometres from the Bougainville capital, Arawa]. There was very fierce fighting just recently, and it is really of great concern to us ... We would like the new government to ask the security forces in Bougainville to move out."
Bishop Zale, who was recently at the centre of controversy over the decision of the Solomon Islands government to issue him a passport, called on the new prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Paias Wingti, to order a cease-fire as the first step towards a resumption of talks. He added that he welcomed the incoming government's apparent willingness to seek an end to the Bougainville crisis.
"The people of Bougainville want complete independence from Papua New Guinea. That is the bottom line, but we can leave that for later. The important thing is that we want peace between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea.
"We are really concerned about the lives of the general public on Bougainville, especially in the south and central part where we don't have services which people are supposed to have ... We would like to come to some sort of agreement with the government to bring peace. The political future of Bougainville can be discussed later on."
The interim government's representative in Honiara, Martin Miriori, asked Wingti to halt the PNGDF's movements and withdraw troops to their three main camps at Wakunai, Kangu and Torokina. A cease-fire was not a precondition for new talks.
The new government's verbal support for peace in Bougainville, however, seems sharply at odds with the activities of the PNG military. Miriori reported earlier in the week that PNGDF Iroquois combat helicopters had continued to strafe villages in central Bougainville, contrary to the claim by Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans that they had been withdrawn.
"Australian supplied and piloted Iroquois helicopters have strafed Manetai village, forcing the occupants to evacuate the village. Fighting has continued throughout the week", Miriori stated on July 27.
The Australian government refuses to raise with the PNG government the use of the helicopters in combat.
Miriori has made contact with the new minister responsible for gio. Miriori added that the interim government representatives were prepared to meet with the new defence minister, Paul Tohian, whose appointment by Wingti on July 27 caused alarm both on Bougainville and among many Papua New Guineans.
During 1989 and 1990 Tohian, then police commissioner, was the controller of the state of emergency on Bougainville. He supported a military solution to the crisis. While under his command, the security forces committed gross violations of human rights.
Unhappy with the signing by the PNG government of an agreement with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army on February 28, 1990, which required PNG troops to leave the island, Tohian issued a call over the police radio network for police to gather outside Parliament House in Port Moresby. He ordered that Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu and opposition leader Paias Wingti be placed under arrest. At least 200 members of the riot police responded, and only the intervention of loyal police and army officers prevented a successful coup. Tohian was charged with treason but the charges were later dropped.
Wingti also confirmed John Kaputin in his position as foreign minister. Kaputin last week spoke in favour of a resumption of talks.
Prospects for peace on Bougainville may improve following the renewal of amicable relations between PNG and the Solomon Islands at the meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in Vanuatu on July 29. Relations soured following attacks by the PNGDF on a Solomons village accused of supplying fuel to Bougainville rebels. The PNG government also accused the Solomons government of being sympathetic to the BRA.