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Solomon Islands Reported Near Collapse - 2003-07-01

Australia is to lead a peacekeeping force to the troubled Solomon Islands, which have been plunged into economic and political chaos. The Pacific Island nation is reported to be near collapse from years of violence.

Most people would be hard-pressed to find the Solomon Islands on a map or globe. Located some 1,600 kilometers northeast of Australia, the country's largest island, Guadalcanal, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between U.S. and Japanese troops in World War II, but has largely been forgotten since then. The former British colony was once dubbed "the Happy Isles" for its easygoing tropical lifestyle.

It is not so happy any more. Ethnic clashes between rival ethnic militias of the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita mostly over land began in 1999 and have escalated over the years. The government has no control outside the capital, Honiara.

Ronald May, a professor at Australian National University, says the situation in the Solomon Islands is grim. "The Solomon Islands is really pretty much the case of a collapsed state at the moment," he says. "And I think the feeling has been that the country does need some external assistance, and the only people who are likely to be able to provide that in a meaningful way are Australia and New Zealand."

On Monday, Pacific Island foreign ministers endorsed a plan for deploying an Australian-led military and police force to the Solomon Islands to restore order. New Zealand is joining the force.

It is the first large military intervention by Australia since it sent peacekeepers to East Timor in 1999 under United Nations auspices. Analysts say Australia and New Zealand have become increasingly concerned about growing economic and political instability among their small neighbors to the north, including Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and parts of Indonesia.

Rebel groups reached a peace agreement in 2000, but the deal has been a failure because one rebel leader refused to sign it.

In a telephone interview, New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff told VOA that since then, clashes over islanders' rights have deteriorated into plain criminal behavior. "Since then, many of the people who took violent action against others under the guise of ethnic rights are now acting in a purely criminal way," says Mr. Goff. "The Solomon Islands today faces a situation where there is no rule of law, where men with high-powered weapons intimidate, use violence against, and extort money from individuals and from the government."

The Honiara government imported a new police commissioner from Britain, William Morrell. A month after Mr. Morrell's appointment in January, the former police commissioner, Frederick Soaki, was murdered.

The government asked Australia and New Zealand to help develop its police force earlier this year, but was turned down. Mr. May says the new intervention shows that the earlier refusal is now seen as a mistake.

Mr. May says the police force's unequal ethnic balance means it cannot be neutral or effective. "The police force itself has been badly compromised. The police force is overwhelmingly Malaitan. A lot of the problems in the Solomons at the moment are amongst what people in the Solomons are referring to as warlords who are Malaitan," says Mr. May. "And there's a feeling that the police force is not able or not willing to move against some of these troublemakers."

New Zealand Foreign Minister Goff says the Australian-led peacekeeping force needs both a military and a police component. "What we are proposing is a police-led deployment, but backed by armed peacekeepers because the ex-militants, the criminal group, have access to several hundred high-powered weapons," he says. "And it's important that the police officers that we put in there to do the job have backup from armed military personnel should that backup be necessary."

Australia will contribute the bulk of the force of more than two-thousand, with New Zealand committing about 200 troops and 30 police to the effort.