By Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) - An independence referendum in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) region of Bougainville will be peaceful and credible, the chief electoral official said on Wednesday, and it will help heal the wounds of a bloody, decade-long civil war.
Chief referendum officer Mauricio Claudio said just over 200,000 people have registered to take part in the non-binding vote being held from Nov. 23 to Dec. 7, marking a sizeable increase in the electoral roll.
"Our assessment is that the referendum will be a peaceful one and will be a credible one," Claudio told a media briefing in the city of Buka.
"We want this to be a joyous occasion. The people of Bougainville have waited for this moment for decades."
The referendum is part of a peace process negotiated at the end of the conflict in 1998.
The war was triggered by discord over how profits flowed from the now shuttered Panguna gold and copper mine, then run by a forerunner of the Rio Tinto mining company.
There was also conflict over the environmental impact of the mining operations on the island of Bougainville.
The conflict between Bougainville's rebel guerrilla army and PNG forces killed as many as 20,000 people, the worst violence in the region known as Oceania since World War Two.
Former adversaries met in PNG's East New Britain province on Wednesday, according to the Autonomous Bougainville Government, as part of the reconciliation process.
The meeting, held on neutral ground, is designed to prepare the way for a main reconciliation at the mine site in Panguna at a date to be determined.
Voters taking part in the referendum will be asked whether they want either greater autonomy or independence, according to the terms of the process.
The result, overseen by former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, will then go to PNG's national parliament in Port Moresby, and be subject to negotiation.
While the referendum is expected to overwhelmingly back independence, Australia's Lowy Institute think-tank said there was uncertainty over how an independent Bougainville could fund itself, as it now relies on support from PNG.
The possible creation of what could soon be the world's newest nation, strategically located in waters separating Asia and the Americas, is being watched closely by Western nations keen to limit China's growing influence in the region.
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; Editing by Robert Birsel)