Six Anglican missionaries held hostage by rebels in the Solomon Islands since April have been killed. The leader of the Solomons' main rebel group admitted the killings to the head of an Australian-led contingent sent to restore order in the island nation.
The civilian head of the Australian-led intervention force, Nick Warner, met on the main island of Guadalcanal with rebel leader Harold Keke.
On his return to the capital Honiara on Friday, Mr. Warner said Mr. Keke had told him the six missionaries, from the Anglican Melanesian Brotherhood, were dead.
"I also asked them during this discussion, also said to them that I wanted to leave today with the Melanesian Brother hostages that I understood they were holding," he explained. " I was told during that meeting that the Melanesian Brothers were dead."
Mr. Warner gave no details of how or when the six had died. The missionaries were known to be alive as late as early July, when a government representative negotiated the release of three of their colleagues.
They hostages had been held since April, when they went to the area of Guadalcanal called the Weathercoast to collect the body of another colleague whom Mr. Keke's group had beheaded.
Mr. Warner, showing emotion as he announced the deaths, nevertheless called the meeting constructive. He said he would hold further talks with Mr. Keke to finalize a handover of rebel weapons, which he said was expected to take place some time next week.
Harold Keke and his followers have been accused of killing dozens of people including a Government minister, and terrorizing villages along the Weathercoast for more than a year.
Mr. Keke has defended his actions, saying he is fighting for independence from a government he describes as corrupt, and a police force he says is beyond the law.
The island nation descended into political and economic ruin after ethnic fighting broke out in 1998, followed by a police-backed coup in 2000.
A 2,000 strong regional force of police and military troops headed by Australia landed near the Solomons' capital two weeks ago to restore law and order. The force represents the largest military deployment in the South Pacific since World War II.
Officials in Australia and New Zealand feared the Solomons would dissolve into a failed state, like Somalia or Afghanistan, that could offer a haven to terrorists and drug traffickers.