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Solomon Islands Warlord Surrenders


The main rebel leader in the violence-torn Solomon Islands has surrendered to Australian-led peacekeepers and is under arrest for robbery. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said allegations of murder against Harold Keke would also be investigated.

The arrest of Harold Keke is a major breakthrough for the Australian-led intervention force in the Solomon Islands. The militant leader surrendered near his base on the remote Weather Coast region of the main island, Guadalcanal, after talks with the head of the international mission, Nick Warner.

Three of Mr. Keke's aides have also been detained. The men will be taken to the capital, Honiara, on board an Australian warship.

The multinational force of more than 2,000 soldiers and policemen arrived in the Solomons almost three weeks ago to help arrest a downward spiral of social and economic decline. Regional government feared that the nation, a group of islands two-and-a-half-thousand kilometers northeast of Australia, could become a haven for drug traffickers and terrorists.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told parliament in Canberra that a full investigation of Mr. Keke's alleged crimes, including murder, would now proceed. Mr. Downer said hundreds of people had fled their villages in recent weeks to escape the rebel leader and his followers.

The foreign minister says the Australian-led intervention in the Solomons is making a real difference, as a community leader expressed to him during his recent visit to Honiara.

"The excitement of local Solomon Islanders on the first day of the deployment was like - as she put it - Christmas Day," says Mr. Downer. "So I think the assistance mission so far is proving to be an unqualified success."

Harold Keke is suspected of carrying out a string of atrocities. Earlier this month he told peacekeepers that six indigenous missionaries he had taken hostage were dead. The circumstances surrounding those deaths have yet to be made public.

Mr. Keke is a former police officer who began fighting for indigenous rights in the late 1990's on Guadalcanal, which is famous as the site of intense battles during World War Two. A brutal ethnic war with settlers from the neighboring island of Malaita followed. The militant leader later split with his colleagues and refused to sign an Australian-brokered peace deal three years ago.

The conflict left a legacy of violence and lawlessness. Peacekeepers hope to restore order in the chaotic archipelago within a few months. Efforts to revive the economy and the institutions of government are expected to take up to a decade.

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