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Papua New Guinea: Hunter becomes hunted

Published Oct. 1, 2005

He's the very model of a modern mercenary, but prefers to call himself a military adviser.

His clandestine activities in this volatile South Pacific country have provoked a military rebellion, a political crisis, riots and calls for the prime minister to quit.

Nevertheless, British soldier of fortune Tim Spicer has no regrets about his plan to use about 70 hired foreign mercenaries to help quell a rebel uprising on the remote island of Bougainville.

The former Scots Guard also has no animosity toward the country just north of Australia that hired him to train its 4,700 soldiers, then arrested him and took his passport away.

"I think the situation took us all by surprise," Spicer told reporters Monday. "I don't think we would have done anything different."

Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan's government hired Spicer's London-based mercenaries, Sandline International, to help with its nine-year secessionist war with rebels on Bougainville, a copper-rich island 800 miles northeast of Port Moresby, the capital.

When news of the operation leaked out, the country's under-paid soldiers revolted, angered that the cash-strapped government spent $36-million on the contract. Civilians joined them, protesting what they saw as evidence of government mismanagement and corruption in the worst political crisis the 22-year-old country has seen.

The army is demanding the resignation of Chan, who fired the army commander, Brig. Gen. Jerry Singirok, for ordering troops not to fight alongside Spicer's mainly South African mercenaries. Singirok ordered the fighters-for-hire detained and then deported them.

Spicer is the last mercenary in Papua New Guinea. On Monday, he pleaded innocent to minor charges that effectively will keep him in the country long enough to testify at an official inquiry into the affair. His passport was seized after the hearing to prevent him from fleeing.

He goes on trial April 8 on charges of possessing an unlicensed pistol and ammunition and faces a maximum $400 fine or six months in prison if convicted.

"I don't want to get involved in a debate about the rights and wrongs of the issue," Spicer said. "I have no bad feelings about the Papua New Guinea government or the people of Papua New Guinea."

Only a week ago he was the dashing commander of a group of hardened mercenaries.

Now, behind a rickety timber railing that served as a dock, 44-year-old Spicer looked more tired than dashing.

It was a long way from his luxury office in London's fashionable King's Road, but Spicer had been in sticky situations before and had always managed to find a way out.

He served in the British army for 20 years. He had dealt with the Serbs in Bosnia, the Iraqis in the Persian Gulf war and helped push the Argentines out of the Falkand Islands. He also was a U.N. spokesman in Bosnia before entering the mercenary business.

And the two books he took with him into the dock could still be useful: Victory At Any Cost, about the Vietnam War, and a biography of Ian Fleming, creator of Britain's most famous action man, James Bond, 007.

Dressed in blue jeans, blue shirt and deck shoes without socks, the former British officer, honored with the Order of the British Empire for his tours in Northern Ireland, waited for charges to be read.

He pleaded not guilty to both, one of possessing an unlicensed Russian Makarov 9mm pistol and one of possessing 41 rounds of ammunition.

He has agreed to testify April 1 at an official inquiry on the mutiny. Soldiers are demanding that Chan step down by today to ensure the inquiry's independence, but Chan has refused.

Protesters who have sided with mutinous soldiers in the mercenary dispute planned a rally today outside the Parliament building.

Police said they were calling in reinforcements, and stores, banks and schools were expected to close amid fears of a repeat of violence and looting that rocked the capital for two days last week.

Local media said that five ministers had either resigned or announced plans to quit the 24-member Cabinet.

The rebellion on Bougainville began in 1988 as an environmental protest over a copper mine, then escalated into a guerrilla war to secede from Papua New Guinea. More than 1,000 people have been killed.