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Solomon Islands Rebel Group Agrees to Hand Over Weapons, With Conditions - 2003-07-29

Members of one of the Solomon Islands' most powerful militia groups, the Malaita Eagle Force, or MEF, promised to hand in their weapons to Australian-led peacekeepers. The offer, however, is not unconditional. The MEF has warned it would only turn over its weapons, if rival ethnic factions are also forced to disarm.

Until the arrival of peacekeepers, the Malaita Eagle Force controlled Honiara. Its leaders have now gone back to the island province of Malaita.

They are in charge of a heavily armed group of fighters, but there appears to be no appetite for a confrontation with the foreign soldiers.

Jimmy Rasta, a founding member of MEF, insists the organization will not resist the intervention forces. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who is due in Honiara later this week, said that it would be suicidal for anyone to take on the peacekeepers.

The MEF hierarchy visited the top man in charge of the multi-national rescue effort, senior Australian official Nick Warner.

He said he is happy to negotiate with all armed gangs over the turning over of illegal weapons.

In Honiara, the military build-up continues. A platoon of Tongan soldiers has arrived along with Iroquois helicopters from New Zealand and a rifle company from Fiji. So far, 1,200 troops and police officials from across the South Pacific are here. That number will double in the coming weeks. Now that the capital has been secured, the deployment into the provinces should start in the next few days. The senior Australian army officer said the assembled force is capable and ready for its mission.

In remote regions, peacekeeping efforts on the ground will be guided by unmanned drones in the sky. These surveillance aircraft will help track renegade militia groups.

Additional navy boats will attempt to cut off the supply of illegal guns into and out of the Solomons through Papua New Guinea's secessionist province of Bougainville, which lies at the northern edge of the archipelago.

The collapse of the Solomon Islands was caused by civil war between the Malaita Eagle Force and indigenous residents of the main island of Guadalcanal.

Land rights and jobs are at the heart of the conflict, which was fueled by long-standing tribal hatred. Hundreds died and thousands lost their homes.

A peace deal signed three years ago failed to live up to its promise. The war officially ended, but the ethnic divisions have remained as wide as ever. Fostering reconciliation between such different groups could be the toughest task of the Australian-led intervention.