17 May 2005

Weapons destruction on PNG islands of Bougainville nears completion

3:26 pm on 17 May 2005

The last quantity of weapons waiting to be disposed of under the peace agreement on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville may be destroyed tomorrow.

The elimination of all weapons collected in the province under the peace deal has to be finished before elections can go ahead.

Voting for an autonomous government is due to start on Friday and the Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs, Sir Peter Barter, says he's confident the arms will be broken up:

"I've got the assurance of some of the mainline, hard-line BRA people. Thomas Tari is the commander in the south Bougainville area, Laguai, and he sent a message through to me that they would be destroying the weapons tomorrow."

The destruction of the 50 weapons will need to be verified by the United Nations mission.

Sir Peter says the government has been sending very clear messages to those involved that any failure to dispose of the weapons could put the elections at risk

The New Zealand foreign minister, Phil Goff, says his government will consider sending more police to the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville if called upon for more help.

New Zealand has been involved in training police on Bougainville which last week saw the withdrawal of Australian police in response to a PNG court ruling that denied Australian officers the immunity from prosecution.

Mr Goff says the differences between Australia and PNG can be overecome and New Zealand may assist.

There has been no approach to us to date about increasing the police presence on Bougainville but if such an approach was made to us we would give it the consideration it deserves.

Phil Goff, New Zealand's foreign minister.

PNG's foreign minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu, says there have been initial inquiries made about New Zealand assisting with security for international election observers, but detailed plans are still begin drawn up .

A group of observers consisting of New Zealanders, Australians and Japanese has now arrived in Bougainville ahead of the start of elections for an autonomous government.

Additional observers have been supplied by the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth.

Australia's opposition says today's withdrawal of Australian police from PNG because of the legal problems represents a full-blown diplomatic disaster.

The opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, says the foreign minister, Alexander Downer, now has to fix up the mess.

Mr Rudd says Mr Downer announced the package with great fanfare a year or so ago and said that this was a huge diplomatic initiative on the part of the Howard government to try and restore law and order in various parts of Papua New Guinea.

He says unfortunately, the detail which has been used to execute this whole deal has proven to come unstuck and now what Australia has is all these taxpayer dollars at stake.

Mr Rudd says he doesn't understand how Australia could have sent the police to PNG without having checked that it would not cause any constitutional problems.

Meanwhile, Mr Howard says Australia will redouble its efforts to return its police to PNG.