NEW ZEALAND DIPLOMAT NICHOLS MURDERED IN SOLOMON ISLANDS

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 17, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---A New Zealand diplomat was stabbed to death at her home in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara Sunday, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said.

The murdered diplomat was Bridget Nichols, 50, who had served as deputy high commissioner for just a few months in the Pacific country, which has been sliding into anarchy following a three-year-long civil war, which claimed the lives of 100 people and displaced another 20,000.

Foreign Minister Phil Goff said two men had been taken in for questioning by the Royal Solomons Police.

"These people, we suspect, were burgling the garage of the house and were surprised by Bridget," he said.

However, police sources later told AFP the two men were security guards from the New Zealand compound on Panatina Ridge -- a one time World War Two battleground -- and are not suspects.

Nothing was taken from the house and there appear to have been no witnesses.

Clark said Nichols had been stabbed once with a kitchen knife. She did not know the motive.

"We just don't know. It is a mystery. . . We don't know what's behind this and we are being a little bit cautious," Clark said.

Last month a New Zealand construction worker was stabbed to death in Honiara. His killer is reportedly widely known in the capital, but he has not yet been arrested in what one foreign resident said was an indication of the breakdown of law and order.

Truce monitors in the country have recently abandoned their last post outside Honiara, fearful of their safety.

There have been calls for Australia and New Zealand to send armed police to save the country from lawlessness and the growing use of mercenaries, as well as to stop the flow of arms from the once warring Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, on its northern border.

English born Nichols had been a diplomat for 10 years and before arriving in the Solomons had been based in Turkey, where she had met Clark.

She had been a volunteer worker in the Solomons between 1989 and 1991 and spoke local languages fluently.

Goff said she had been loading or unloading her car when attacked. She staggered from her property into the house of her neighbor, the administration officer of the New Zealand High Commission.

She was taken to a nearby hospital but died.

Goff said one of the first people on the scene was a New Zealand police inspector serving with the peace monitors.

Clark said the killing was ``very, very tragic.''

She said that due to the country's lawlessness, all staff were already under 24-hour patrol from a local security firm.

"We do our best to protect. But as of tonight the Solomon Islands police were putting on extra patrols around the homes.''

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the incident was tragic.

She said the situation in the Solomons was dangerous and warned Australians not to visit the islands.

"Australians have been warned to put off any travel to the Solomon Islands,'' she said.

"Australians already there should maintain a high level of personal security.''

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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