PORT MORESBY, Australia -- Francis Ona, the charismatic leader of a bloody secessionist movement in the Papua New Guinea province of Bougainville, died Sunday.
He was believed to be in his 50s and may have died of malaria, the country's National Broadcasting Corp. reported. His death was confirmed by Bougainville's new president, Joseph Kabui.
After 16 years of seclusion, Mr. Ona emerged from his mountain retreat a few weeks before elections on May 20 to proclaim Bougainville already independent from Papua New Guinea. He had begun referring to himself as king of the province within the past few years.
His movement's opposition to rule from the Papua New Guinea capital, Port Moresby, left 15,000 dead during the 1988-1998 conflict, most through disease and starvation.
Fighters were disaffected with the Papua New Guinea government and with the huge Panguna copper mine, then operated by Australian mining giant CRA.
Kabui, elected in May as part of a move toward autonomy for Bougainville in an election that Mr. Ona boycotted, expressed sadness at Mr. Ona's death.
Papua New Guinea's Bougainville Affairs Minister Peter Barter also expressed sadness, saying his greatest wish was for Mr. Ona to play a real part in Bougainville's peace process.
Barter said Mr. Ona's family, the people of the Meekamui Movement he led, and the people of Bougainville should be proud of Mr. Ona.
''He stood for what he believed in, and in a way, he became a legend in his own lifetime," Barter said.
A cease-fire signed in 1998 ended the war, and in 2001 the island of 180,000 people about 560 miles northeast of Port Moresby was promised a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years.