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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July, 2005, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Bougainville rebel leader dies
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

1990 photo of Francis Ona, the leader of the rebel army on the island of Bougainville
Francis Ona was described as "a leader who became a legend"
Francis Ona, the man who launched a bloody 10-year war for independence in Papua New Guinea's island province of Bougainville, has died.

He was in his early 50s when he died over the weekend after a short illness.

The conflict began in November 1988, as a dispute between islanders and a multi-national mining company over land and alleged environmental damage.

Observers say his death could bring about greater reconciliation between rival groups on the island.

Francis Ona was the self-proclaimed king of Bougainville.

His dream was to sever its constitutional ties with Papua New Guinea.

His war of independence began in the late 1980s - with a dispute over land rights with the owners of a giant copper mine.

But the conflict soon mushroomed into a civil war which lasted for a decade. Thousands of people died.

A ceasefire was signed in 1998, and islanders were later promised a referendum on independence within 15 years.

As Bougainville inched its way towards a lasting peace, Francis Ona remained on the outside.

He wanted self-determination immediately and for the past 16 years he has lived in seclusion at a mountain retreat guarded by his followers.

He refused to support a UN plan that led to historic elections earlier this year for Bougainville's first-ever autonomous government.

The island is geographically part of the Solomon's archipelago and is ethnically distinct from the rest of Papua New Guinea.

Even Francis Ona's opponents have praised his determination to stand up for the rights of Bougainvilleans, although they disagreed with his methods.

He was described by one senior government minister as a leader who became a legend in his own lifetime.

A state funeral will be held for him.

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