SYDNEY, Australia (ABC News Online, July 11) - Heavily armed police have dispersed a crowd of about 200 militants who surrounded the Prime Minister's office in the lawless and near-bankrupt Solomon Islands and demanded "goodwill" money.

The tense stand-off outside Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza's office came a day after the tiny South Pacific nation approved a 2,000-strong, Australian-led intervention force to restore order after five years of violence and intimidation by ethnic militias.

Police armed with M-16 rifles moved in after the unarmed militants, all former members of a militia from the island of Malaita, converged on Kemakeza's office.

They surrounded a finance ministry official demanding he sign payments of SI$2,000 (A$653) for each of them.

"Police are now in control of the situation," Police Commissioner William Morrell told reporters.

The Solomons, a former British protectorate once known as "the Happy Isles", is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and public servants have not been paid since September.

Government offices and hospitals are often closed because workers have not been paid.

Witnesses said the militants were former members of the Malaita Eagles Force, which fought bloody battles with a rival militia from the main island of Guadalcanal from 1998, leading to a coup in June 2000.

Some of the militants said they wanted money so they could leave the capital Honiara, on Guadalcanal, and return to Malaita.

"We just want the SI$2,000. It's a goodwill payment," one unidentified militant told Reuters. "We want the money today so that we can go home."

Demands for "goodwill" or "compensation" payments are commonplace in the South Pacific nation of about 450,000 people.

They are often made to compensate victims of crimes or simply to redress perceived wrongs.

Corruption is endemic in the Solomons and armed gangs roam Honiara at will, extorting money from the government and have taken pot shots at Kemakeza's residence.

The Australian-led intervention force is expected to be in place by the end of the month.

It will be the biggest military deployment in the region since World War II.

To be made up mainly of Australian and New Zealand personnel, the force will have about 200 police, 200 troops and about 1,500 support personnel.

July 14, 2003

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