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Former rebel commander to be next president of Bougainville, lead independence talks

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Former rebel military commander Ishmael Toroama has been elected as president of Bougainville, an autonomous region in the South Pacific, electoral officials said on Wednesday, and is set to lead talks seeking independence from Papua New Guinea.

The general election was the first since Bougainville voted overwhelmingly for a separation from Papua New Guinea at the end of last year, with Toroama defeating an open field, the Bougainville Electoral Commissioner said.

Bougainville, a mineral-rich and lush group of islands in the South Pacific, has been hampered by years of little economic progress following a decade-long civil war that claimed as many as 20,000 lives before ending in 1998.

The conflict was largely fought over how the profits from the lucrative Panguna gold and copper mine on Bougainville Island should be shared and the environmental damage it had caused.

Toroama was a commander in the secessionist Bougainville Revolutionary Army, and later worked on the peace and disarmament process.

His victory marks a break from the current administration, led by President John Momis, after the government’s candidate was earlier eliminated in the region’s preferential voting system.

Last year’s non-binding independence poll was part of the peace process that ended the conflict although there remains competing claims over development rights to the long-shuttered Panguna mine.

Reporting by Jonathan Barrett; editing by Richard Pullin