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Intervention Troops to Bring Welcome Relief for Soloman Islands Police Force - 2003-07-18

Australia, New Zealand, and some South Pacific states are mobilizing troops and police to deploy to the Solomon Islands. The predominantly Australian force is being sent to bring order and security to the island nation, which has plunged into chaos and lawlessness. There is one man in the Solomon Islands who will be particularly gratified to see the peacekeepers arrive.

In January of this year, Bill Morrell left the cold winter of Britain for the tropical climate of the Solomon Islands to take up the job of police commissioner.

He quickly found out how hot his new job could get.

"Sir Fred Soaki was the first indigenous police commissioner. And he was commissioner here from about '82…'94… And he was murdered after I had been here for about two weeks," explains Mr. Morrell.

The accused assassin was a police officer who was captured but has since escaped.

It was a shocking moment even for a man who had once been the chief superintendent of the Special Operations Branch in Manchester, England, and had spent 12 months in Kosovo setting up a multi-ethnic police training academy.

In 2002, Mr. Morrell answered an ad in the newspaper for the EU-funded job of police commissioner of the Solomon Islands. He showed up at the British Foreign Office for what he thought would be an interview and a briefing.

"And there was no briefing. I just got there and had the interview and later in the day found out I had got the job," he says. "I did know that there had been tension here and some of the problems here. And later on, after I'd been offered the job, the situation actually deteriorated further, and they asked me if I still wanted to go. And I asked for a company of Royal Marines to accompany me, and they turned me down on that. But I said I'd go anyway."

The lawlessness in the Solomon Islands dates back to the late 1990s, when residents of the two main islands, Guadalcanal and Malaita, first fought over lands and jobs. The dispute then erupted into ethnic warfare. Conditions quickly deteriorated into pure criminality, and the government holds no power outside the capital city, Honiara.

Mr. Morell says that on the surface, the city looks deceptively placid.

"But underneath, there is a tension there, where a group of ex-militants who have held sway for a number of years now, and they control the situation," he explains. " And certainly from time to time they put pressure on different government ministries or ministers and extort money. And that can be very, very blatant, where they'll go into a ministry and put a gun to the minister's head, or they'll go the treasury and just demand that money be paid to them."

The police force of 1,000 men is itself a problem. Polarized along ethnic lines, intimidation and fighting among officers is frequent. As a result, Mr. Morrell says, the force is immobile and 95 percent of complaints filed with police do not get investigated.

Mr. Morrell says the infusion of police officers to the Solomon Islands, backed by armed soldiers, will allow him to start rebuilding his besieged police force.

"There's still some fighting going on. We've had some horrific murders… where people have been beaten and tortured and left to die over a number of days," Mr. Morrell says. " What the intervention force will allow to happen is for this country to get back on its feet again and stop this tyranny that people have had to live under."

If that happens, maybe the Solomon Islands can reclaim its discarded nickname, the "Happy Isles."