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Solomon Islands PM Flees Capital; Intervention Force Arriving - 2003-07-23

Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza of the troubled Solomon Islands has fled the capital Honiara, just hours before the arrival of an Australian-led intervention force. Officials say Mr. Kemakeza has been taken to a secret location amid concerns for his safety.

The hurried departure of the Solomon Islands prime minister is yet another example of how chaotic and lawless his country has become. He fled the capital on board a police patrol boat because of concerns for his security.

Government officials have not elaborated on the nature of any possible threat. But unconfirmed reports in the Solomon Islands suggest militia members were planning to abduct the prime minister as an act of defiance, ahead of the deployment of the Australian-led peacekeeping operation.

The force is made up of military and police personnel from Fiji, New Zealand, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. The Australians are in charge. Once order has been restored, the task of rebuilding the country and reviving its shattered economy will begin in earnest. It could take a decade to get the job done.

Solomon Islands Police Commissioner William Morrell is hopeful the intervention force will stabilize the country. "I think, very quickly, you'll see some public displays of Australian, New Zealand and other Pacific Island police officers on the streets of Honiara," he said. "But there is an awful lot of hard work to do … before we'll see perhaps some more detailed results."

The South Pacific nation of almost half-a-million mostly-Melanesian people, is in a serious mess. The institutions of government stagger from day-to-day, barely able to deliver essential services, such as electricity, sanitation and education. Lawlessness, along with a widespread sense of hopelessness, has risen since the end of an ethnic war three years ago. The conflict, which is being fought over land rights and jobs, has sent the country into a spiraling decline.

This intervention in the Solomon Islands marks a major policy change for the Australian government. For years, successive administrations followed a "hands-off" approach to troubles in the South Pacific, for fear of being seen as neo-colonialist at a time when many South Pacific island nations were gaining independence in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001 and the bombings on the Indonesian Island of Bali last year have forced a re-think. Australia is convinced 'failing states' in the South Pacific could become hide-outs for terrorists, or bases for drug traffickers and money launderers.