UNNOTICED, THE ONCE PEACEFUL SOLOMON ISLANDS SLIPPING FURTHER INTO NIGHTMARE

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 8, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---No one much notices any more but for the record the Solomon Islands, a beautiful and lush chain of Pacific islands, is on the edge of an archaistic nightmare.

"The worsening state of lawlessness here is terrifying," an expert adviser in the capital of Honiara on Guadalcanal Island said Thursday. He requested anonymity.

"This place is being run by politicians for the benefit of criminals. . .. It’s going in the direction of Sierra Leone."

The Gizo Civil Society, based in a once popular tourist spot, this week appealed for Australia and New Zealand to send armed police in to save the country from the lawlessness, the growing use of mercenaries and to stop the flow of arms from the once warring Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, on the northern border.

They also want an international inquiry "to investigate and charge those who started and profited from the ethnic tension."

Independent from Britain since 1978, the Solomons could be one of the richest nations in the Pacific. With just 446,000 Melanesian people living on a scattering of seven major islands and hundreds of minor ones with a land area of 28,530 square kilometers (11,412 square miles), it is rich in fish, gold, forestry and palm oil. It offers unrivalled tourist opportunities.

Known as "The Happy Isles" the country was placid until 1998, when a group of politicians exploited inter-island feeling between those of Guadalcanal and Malaita into civil war. In the three years since, 100 people have been killed and 20,000 people turned into refugees. The lush Guadalcanal plans are deserted, oil palm plantations decaying and a new mine on Gold Ridge abandoned. Its "Weather Coast" is a no-go area as an erratic warlord, Harold Keke, runs the place.

In 2000 a new militant group, the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), co-founded by lawyer Andrew Nori, seized the democratic government and turned Honiara into a Malaitan enclave. Last December democracy was restored with the election of Sir Allan Kemakeza, but he included key members of the MEF in the cabinet, although Nori last month fled the country and now lives in Wellington.

On Tuesday a group of armed men boarded a cargo ship in Honiara and robbed its crew.

Last month a New Zealander was stabbed to death in the town. His killer is known but nothing has been done.

A week ago two Malaita special constables were murdered in Noro in Western Province. A source who investigated that killing says no Noro local mourned their deaths: they had been terrorizing locals.

Opposition politician Alfred Sasako has itemized killings and says the killers are always known: "What horrifies me most is that in each of the cases, the alleged perpetrators are known to police and yet (the police) have yet to make one single arrest."

When Western Province Premier Rueben Lilo went to Honiara to discuss the deaths, he was held up and robbed by Malaitans.

A cabinet minister did not like a report on him last month in the Solomon Star: rather than write a letter he sent armed men around to get compensation of 5,000 Solomons (about 1,000 U.S.) dollars.

Remnants of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, who fought their own decade long civil war, control areas of the Solomons. Last week they shelled the Gizo police station.

Eight Tongan, Fijian, New Zealand and Australian peace monitors this week abandoned their last post outside Honiara, fearful of their safety.

Dengue fever broke out this week in Honiara, claiming four lives. Hospitals, however, are closing down amidst security fears. Wounded combatants from various rival gangs have been murdered in hospital beds. Malaria, always endemic, is surging again.

The expert source noted wryly that while ordinary people can get no protection from law and order, and the government has no money, logging ships from Asia are queuing up to take away much of the rainforest of New Georgia. One of the world’s largest lagoons, Morovo, is now being stained with run-off from the clear felling.

"The police admit they can do nothing about the logging; it’s just going on, and the government and the people are making nothing out of it," he said. "It makes you wonder who this country is run for now."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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