NEW SOLOMON ISLANDS ARMY 'SHOULD UNITE FIGHTING FACTIONS'

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HONIARA, Solomon Islands (July 14, 2000 – Sydney Morning Herald)--- The new government plans to create a defense force for the first time, in response to almost two years of deadly ethnic fighting.

The Prime Minister, Mr. Manasseh Sogavare, said the measure was part of Peace Plan 2000, his government's first policy document aimed at ending an ethnic dispute over land, which has devastated the country.

The policy includes setting a framework for peace talks between two warring armed militias, amnesties for their members and compensation payments to victims of the fighting.

Mr. Sogavare said he expected militiamen from both sides to join the new defense force. That would help ease the fighters back into society, he said.

The new military organization would not be created immediately, he said. It would oversee national security and be trained to engage in civil works and help in times of natural disaster.

"There is full justification for the country to have a defense force, not because we have an aggressor from outside but [because] such a force could help deal with uprisings like we have now," he said.

The Solomons has never had an army. The police force is the armed domestic authority.

The recent ethnic dispute escalated on June 5 when rebels from the island of Malaita raided a police armory in Honiara, the capital, seized the city and forced the prime minister, Mr. Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, to resign.

The rebels were angry that over the past 19 months indigenous people of Guadalcanal, known as Isatabus, have expelled 20,000 people who migrated there from nearby Malaita in recent decades to find jobs and land. In recent months as many as 60 people have been killed.

Mr. Sogavare, elected by MPs after Mr. Ulufa'alu's removal, is trying to bring the fighting groups together next week for formal ceasefire talks.

The Government hopes peace talks between the Malaitan Eagle Force and its rival the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) will start next Wednesday aboard HMAS Tobruk.

Mr. Ezekiel Alebua, Premier of Guadalcanal, the main island, has told the new government that IFM leaders would attend the talks.

In another apparent breakthrough, Mr. Alebua said on Tuesday that he was considering supporting Mr. Sogavare's government, which Guadalcanal leaders had initially rejected.

"We are now considering recognizing the central government despite the atmosphere under which it came to power," Mr. Alebua said. "The Government ... has so far addressed the issue of the unrest with tact, understanding and determination."

Mr. Sogavare was elected at an emergency sitting of Parliament a fortnight ago. He won 23-21 but has since increased his majority in the 50-seat parliament.

For additional reports from The Sydney Morning Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

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