Independence vote delayed for Papua New Guinea's Bougainville

Port Moresby (AFP) –


A referendum that could lead to statehood for the troubled south Pacific Island of Bougainville has been delayed until the end of the year, top officials meeting in Port Moresby agreed Friday.

Amid a row over funding, the vote -- which could split the island from Papua New Guinea and create the world's newest country -- will not take place in June as planned.

Bertie Ahern, the former Irish prime minister who chairs the referendum commission, said that holding the vote on June 15 as planned was "just not possible."

"This is, of course, disappointing to me and everyone else, but it is the reality of the situation," he said, recommending that the vote now take place on October 17.

That recommendation was accepted by the regional and central government, although voting is likely to take place over multiple days.

"The voting will take place in October," said Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

The vote is seen as a key pillar of a 2001 peace process that ended a brutal decade-long civil war that killed up to 20,000 people -- one in ten of the island's population.

The battle between secessionists and the central Papua New Guinea government only ended with a promise of more autonomy and an eventual vote on statehood.

Both the government in Port Moresby and authorities in Bougainville indicated they wanted that vote to go ahead, but preparations have been hindered by the government's failure to provide the bulk of promised funding for the effort.

There have also been concerns about the accuracy of the voter rolls.

"Our government is committed to making sure that we will have the referendum this year," O'Neill said, amid criticism from the region's president John Momis about his "slow release of funds".

The referendum commission "will need more time to be ready to conduct the free and fair and credible referendum", he said.

Observers have warned that disputes and delays risk rekindling unrest and heightening political tensions.

Analysts at Fitch Solutions have predicted that Bougainvilleans will vote for independence, but it is not clear that the authorities in Port Moresby will honour the result.

Ahern warned both sides that further delay would be disastrous and that they face years of difficult negotiations -- even after the vote takes place.

The referendum will ask residents of the island whether they want more autonomy or independence.