By Norm Dixon
The existence of the fledgling independent Republic of Bougainville is under grave threat. The Papua New Guinea Defence Force launched a major military push towards the island's capital, Arawa, in the early hours of October 21.
The attack is likely to reignite the bitter guerilla war between armed supporters of Bougainville's independence and PNG troops. Arawa, home to 5000 people, has come under heavy and indiscriminate mortar shelling for several days.
The Bougainville Interim Government's Honiara-based spokesperson, Martin Miriori, has appealed to "all peace loving people, men and women of good will" to condemn this act of military aggression directed against the defenceless population of Arawa. This unprovoked attack runs contrary to the wishes of the international community as expressed in recent resolutions passed by the United Nations Sub-Commission on Human Rights and the ACP-European Economic Community Joint Assembly, he said. Those resolutions called upon PNG to resume negotiations to resolve the crisis and lift its crippling blockade of the island.
The military advance was clearly well planned. The almost 24-hour delay before the government acknowledged the operation has caused some conjecture over the extent of direct government control of the PNGDF's latest actions.
The attack was preceded by several incidents which prevented outside observers entering rebel-held central Bougainville. On October 17, an ABC news crew was forced to leave the island at gunpoint, and on October 13 a mission from churches in the Pacific region was forbidden to visit Bougainville by the PNG government.
Under cover of dark and in torrential rain, PNG troops and riot police in two large transport vehicles moved into central Bougainville from north Bougainville, which is occupied by at least 500 PNG troops. The raiding party captured the strategic Itakara road junction between the closed Panguna copper mine and Arawa, 15 kilometres away, at 3 a.m. on October 21. The Bougainville Interim Government's Radio Free Bougainville has been off the air since the night of October 21.
Soon after Itakara was seized, Arawa began to be bombarded by mortar shells. Two vehicles attempting to reach Arawa from Panguna were stopped by troops, and one was destroyed. In the afternoon of October 21, Bougainville Interim Government sources counted six separate landings by the PNGDF's Australian-supplied Iroquois combat helicopters, each of which deposited at least 12 heavily armed soldiers in the grounds of the Tunuru Catholic Mission, two km outside Arawa. Throughout October 22 and 23, mortar rounds continued to be lobbed indiscriminately into the town from PNG's Australian-supplied patrol boats off shore. The shelling caused thousands to flee into the bush. Many people living in the town had previously sought refuge in central Bougainville from the depredations of PNG troops active in the island's north.
The clear intent of the shelling is to cause maximum terror among the civilian population so as to undermine support for the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. In government radio broadcasts directed at Arawa each night from Rabaul, Port Moresby's Bougainville administrator, Sam Tulo, has urged townspeople to flee to PNGDF-controlled areas, where they are promised food, shelter and medicines.
The Bougainville Revolutionary Army has reported just one direct clash between the opposing forces. At 7 a.m. on October 23, 50 BRA militants intercepted a similar number of PNGDF soldiers moving along the beach near Arawa Country Club. The BRA claim to have killed five PNG soldiers in the clash. The PNG soldiers withdrew after several hours, abandoning weaponry and ammunition.
During the encounter, one of the Australian-supplied Iroquois combat helicopters sprayed the Bougainville fighters with gunfire from the air. BRA forces say the aircraft was damaged by ground fire. They have also reported that "PNGDF Patrol Boat 04" has been damaged by BRA gunfire.
Despite this, it is unlikely that the BRA, which lacks the firepower of the invading troops, will engage in a face-to-face confrontation if the PNGDF moves into Arawa in large numbers. It will instead move into the mountainous countryside and resume the guerilla war that forced the PNGDF to withdraw from Bougainville in March 1990.
The Australian Council for Overseas Aid has urged PNG Prime Minister Paias Wingti to end the offensive. ACFOA said only talks could bring a just and lasting peace. This call has been supported by Tony Simpson of the International Commission of Jurists. ACFOA added that a "safe corridor" should be created to allow medical supplies and humanitarian aid to reach central Bougainville.
The latest military adventure has again focused attention on the role of Australian military aid to PNG. As well as Australian-supplied helicopters and patrol boats being used directly in the offensive, the riot police involved almost certainly have been trained by Australian advisers.
ABC Radio National reporter Steve McDonnell revealed in the on October 25 that an Australian Defence Force captain had trained police for combat on Bougainville. A secret AIDAB review report that fell into his hands expressed concern that the officer's activities may be in breach of PNG's constitution. The report admitted that the Australian advisers were in reality acting as military leaders.