June 9, 2000
Sydney, June 8: Chaos ruled in the Solomon Islands on Thursday as rival militias engaged in pitched battles, a peacemaker’s plane was shot at and navy ships were despatched from Australia and New Zealand to evacuate foreigners from the tiny South Pacific nation.
The escalating violence also forced Commonwealth diplomats to delay a mission seeking a negotiated settlement between ethnic groups battling for control of Guadalcanal, the main island. The civil war pits Guadalcanal islanders grouped in the Isatabu freedom movement against settlers from neighbouring Malaitan island recruited into the Malaitan Eagle Force.
The collapse of law and order put paid to hopes that a deal between Eagles leader Andrew Nori and Prime Minister Bart Ulafa’alu would bring an end to 18 months of violence that has cost at least 100 lives and forced 20,000 to flee their homes.
Nori took Ulafa’alu hostage on Monday, releasing him on Wednesday oncondition that he resign at a special session of Parliament next week. Both Ulufa’alu and Nori are Malaitans, as are most of the police and paramilitary in the Capital Honiara. Nori, in an interview with Australia’s ABC radio, put the deathtoll at more than 100 and said he could see no immediate end to the conflict.
"This is a war that will continue for some time,” said Nori, a lawyer and former Finance Minister. Two members of the European Parliament were caught up in the battle for Guadalcanal, an island made famous by the landing there in 1942 of US Marines for an island-hopping campaign that eventually led to the liberation of the Philippines and the Japanese surrender in 1945.
The MEPs, John Corrie and Glenys Kinnock, wife of former British Labour Party leader Niel Kinnock, were in Honiara to help negotiate a political solution but ended up making a daring escape on a chartered plane. European Union aid represents a quarter of the income of the Solomons, a group of six major islands that won independence from Britain in 1978.
Corrie, telling the BBC how the pair had escaped to Papua New Guinea, said, "When we taxied down the runway to take off there was a tremendous fusillade of shots at us and unfortunately a small part of the aircraft stopped functioning and we had to go back to the terminal again. I am pleased to say that when we came out for the second time there was no problem and we took off”.
Australian and New Zealand navy ships were steaming to the Solomons to evacuate the 700 foreigners still trapped. The descent into anarchy has also prompted the 54-member Commonwealth group of ex-British colonies to postpone a peace mission. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and ministers from Malaysia, Botswana and New Zealand, were scheduled to visit Honiara on Friday to warn of Commonwealth sanctions unless the constitution is respected and parliamentary democracy restored.
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