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Bougainville to Get Greater Autonomy from Papua New Guinea - 2002-04-03

The parliament of Papua New Guinea has voted to give the secessionist province of Bougainville greater autonomy in an historic ballot in the capital Port Morseby. The decision also provides for a referendum on independence within 15 years. One of the Pacific's bloodiest civil wars ended in Bougainville in 1998 after a decade of fierce fighting in which as many as 15,000 people were killed.

The constitutional changes, which had bipartisan support from 85 members of parliament, came during a special sitting of Papua New Guinea's legislature, the last before the country's general elections in June.

The decision to allow Bougainville greater self-rule is seen as another important step towards long-term stability. The leaders of the province expressed their sense of victory and said at long last they could see peace for the troubled province.

Bougainville was torn apart by a conflict that began as a dispute over land between multinational copper mining companies and the islanders in 1987. It developed into a brutal civil war that lasted a decade and claimed thousands of lives as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army fought with the Papua New Guinea Defense Forces.

A peace agreement was signed last August. One of its key components was disarmament of the fighting factions. So far, around 1000 weapons have been handed in, including sub-machine guns and rocket launchers. The parliamentary approval of greater autonomy for Bougainville is another vital part in the peace process. Papua New Guinea's constitution will be amended to allow a referendum on independence to be carried within 10 to 15 years.

The prime minister, Mekere Morauta, has supported more self-governemnt for the rebel province.

Papua New Guinea is the largest and the most populated country in the Pacific. It gained independence from Australia in 1975. More than 700 languages are spoken among its 5 million people. It's estimated a third of them live in poverty.

Diplomats say the new Bougainville agreement places Papua New Guinea in the international arena as a country committed to solving its problems by democratic means.