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Friday, 23 January, 1998, 12:13 GMT
Peace comes...on the quiet
An end to the prolonged conflict is the goal at the Christchurch talks
An end to the prolonged conflict is the goal at the Christchurch talks
Far away from Ulster and Israel, peace talks were underway in one of the South Pacific's bloodiest conflicts which has claimed thousands of lives.

The talks attracted a tiny proportion of the worldwide attention that has been focused on Ireland and the Middle East. But the unrest in Bougainville, an island administered by Papua New Guinea, has been no less unpleasant for that.

An estimated 20,000 lives have been lost in the conflict between separatists on the island and government forces since fighting began in 1989.

Independence demands

The struggle began as a protest over environmental damage by a copper mine, but escalated into demands by islanders for full independence.

Tim Spicer, awarded an OBE for his military service in Belfast in the early 1990s
Tim Spicer, awarded an OBE for his military service in Belfast, but arrested last year
World attention did briefly turn to the conflict last year with the arrest of British mercenary leader Tim Spicer, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Scots Guards and a veteran of the Falklands, Bosnia and the Gulf War. The charges against him were dropped.

More than 100 representatives of the various factions in the fighting gathered in Christchurch, New Zealand, for talks this week. A truce, which has held since last year and is being policed by troops from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Vanuatu, has now been formalised.

Most serious crisis

The hiring of mercenaries by the Government to put down the rebellion on Bougainville led to the country's most serious political crisis since it gained independence from Australia in 1975.

The country's former military commander, Jerry Singirok, called on the Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, to resign for hiring the mercenaries.

Ethical questions

Singirok said his troops were going without food, pay or supplies, but the government had spent a reported 15 million on hiring British-based company, Sandline International, to supply "military training".

It was ethically wrong, he claimed, when the money could have been spent on re-equipping the country's own forces.

Sir Julius then sacked General Singirok, which led to rioting and further unrest. But Sir Julius himself was defeated in a general election last June, and replaced by a new Prime Minister, Bill Skate.

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