May 15, 2006
Papua New Guinea fears that open conflict could erupt on Bougainville if authorities there enlist civilian fighters to help police take on a notorious conman and his private army.
Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Bougainville Affairs Peter Barter said he understood the frustrations of Bougainville’s autonomous government following an shooting attack on police last week by armed men working for Noah Musingku, a rebel leader who had proclaimed himself the island’s king.
"But we should continue to resolve the issue without the use of guns," he said.
In the Siwai district last Tuesday, members of an armed group of around 16 men opened fire on police after their vehicle was stopped at a police road block.
Police returned fire but no-one was injured in the exchange and the group of Meekamui Movement troops later ransacked and torched police and district administration properties in the area, police said.
Following the incidents, Bougainville President Joseph Kabui said his government had decided to take precautionary measures in the Siwai district by having armed police backed by former combatants from the island’s past civil war ready to counter any further trouble by Musingku’s men.
Barter said two of five former Fijian soldiers hired by Musingku to train his security force were reportedly seen carrying weapons during last Tuesday’s shooting incident.
"Noah Musingku says the only weapon they have is the bible. Let me tell you, they weren’t shooting bibles last week," Barter said.
"We are very frustrated, the same as the Bougainvillean people are. These guys continue to annoy us.
"But I would caution about using arms. We don’t want an open conflict on our hands."
Bougainville, an autonomous region of PNG emerging from years of secessionist conflict, has pursued a gun-free peace process hampered by the pro-independence Meekamui Movement which has maintained road blocks and no-go zones in the island’s south.
Meekamui supporters of secessionist leader Francis Ona who died following an illness last year have distanced themselves from Musingku’s Meekamui faction and his private army.
The Fijians, who have worked for security firms in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots, have reportedly been promised $US1 million (NZ$1,232,500) each by Musingku.
Musingku is wanted by authorities over his U-Vistract banking scam which has duped thousands of investors in Bougainville, the rest of PNG, the Solomons and Fiji.
Barter said he was not sure how the issue in the south could be resolved but the ultimate test was to get Musingku out.