.Posted: 2000

Armed rebels in the Solomon Islands

June 05, 2000

Armed rebels in the Solomon Islands have seized control of the capital Honiara and are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu.

A militia group called the Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF) moved into the capital of the South Pacific nation in the early hours of Monday, taking over a number of installations and putting up road blocks.

There are reports that a rival group - the Isatabu Freedom Movement - have seized an Australian-owned gold mine, where they are holding as many as 40 Australian nationals.

The two groups from neighbouring islands have been been engaged in sporadic fighting for more than 18 months, which has left about 60 people dead.

MEF leader Andrew Nori said Mr Ulufa'alu had been handed a letter asking him to step down and that he had agreed to hold a cabinet meeting to discuss "possible terms of reference for his resignation".

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he believed the prime minister was still free to move around the town, but the New Zealand Foreign Ministry said they believed Mr Ulufa'alu was being held at gunpoint by six armed men.

A report from the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation radio said the prime minister was safe at home, but had been put under what the rebels called "protective care".

"The disarming of his normal personal security officers has in no way put his life at risk," said the SIBC.

Mr Nori said the prime minister would be freed within the next few days, once the situation in the capital calmed down, according to SIBC.

He told a news conference that militia had raided police armouries and were now in complete control of security.

There is no army in the Solomon Islands.

The rebels cut telephone lines and took over a number of key buildings.

All businesses and banks were closed in Honiara and all flights into Honiara have been cancelled for Monday and Tuesday.

Honiara Mayor Donald Fugui broadcast a warning to the city's residents to stay at home.

The coup attempt is the second in the South Pacific in recent weeks.

Armed rebels are still holding Fiji's deposed prime minister and more than 30 other people hostage in the Fijian capital Suva.

Joses Tuhanuku, a former opposition leader, said that Fiji coup leader George Speight had influenced people in the Solomon Islands.

"In the past two weeks there has been so much publicity about the problems in Fiji and the way that man has taken control that this has inspired people," he said.

The simmering ethnic dispute in the Solomon Islands dates back to World War Two.

Guadalcanal militants are resentful of migration to their island by people from neighbouring Malaita island, who have taken key jobs in Honiara.

The Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) has forced an estimated 20,000 people on Guadalcanal, mostly settlers from Malaita, to abandon their homes, jobs and properties and seek refuge with relatives in Honiara or on other islands.

The MEF is resisting the Isatabu militia, and peace talks between the two sides were called off last week, shortly before they were to have started.

Former Fijian prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka - who led an earlier coup in Fiji in 1987 - was appointed Commonwealth Special Envoy to the Solomon Islands last year to help broker peace.

But with Fiji in the grip of another coup attempt itself and in danger of suspension from the Commonwealth, Mr Rabuka's position as envoy has become uncertain.


Earlier reports that other government officials also had been taken hostage appeared to be incorrect, New Zealand Foreign Ministry spokesman Brad Pattersfield said. However, phone lines were not working and details of the story remained sketchy.

The rebels were demanding that Ulufa'alua resign within 48 hours, said Pattersfield. He said it was unclear where he was being held, or what had motivated the apparent coup attempt.

The armed rebels from the Malaita Eagle Force captured the prime minister early Monday morning and were holding him hostage on the main Solomon island of Guadalcanal, Pattersfield said.

In Canberra, Australia, the country's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the rebels had overrun key installations overnight in the capital, Honiara.

The Malaita Eagle Force rebel group has taken over police stations, the Government Telecommunications Center and key intersections, the department said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear how many fighters the shadowy rebel group had used in its attack, or what kind of support it was receiving from the island's people.

Diplomats in New Zealand said the Malaita Eagle Force also had raided a police armory in Honiara and stolen weapons.

Honiara Mayor Donald Fugui issued warned the city's residents Monday to stay home, Pattersfield said. The streets were reportedly calm Monday.

The apparent coup in the Solomons was the second recently in the South Pacific.

More than two weeks ago, armed rebels captured Fiji's prime minister and more than 30 legislators in that country's parliament. Since then, the military has taken power and accepted many of the rebels' demands, including dismissing the prime minister, the first ever elected from Fiji's ethnic Indian minority. On Monday, the hostages were still being held in Parliament as the military sought a peace deal with the coup leader, George Speight.

In the Solomons, the Malaita Eagle Force and the Isatabu Freedom Movement rebel groups have been fighting each other for 18 months on the Solomons' main island, Guadalcanal. The Solomons are about 2,230 miles northwest of Wellington and 1,600 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

The Isatabu force has been fighting to push thousands of migrants from the nearby island of Malaita off Guadalcanal. Honiara, located on Guadalcanal, is largely populated by Malaitans.

The Malaita Eagle Force is resisting that effort. The fighting has left at least 50 people killed or missing, and has forced 20,000 to flee their homes.

Peace talks between the warring factions in the Solomon Islands were called off last week, shortly before they were to have started.

On Monday, it was not immediately possible to reach officials of the Malaita Eagle Force to discuss the coup attempt.

However, Malaitan Eagle Force spokesman Andrew Nori told the Solomons radio station that rebels had taken over Honiara in an attempt to accelerate the peace process and prevent ethnic violence from tearing apart the island nation, New Zealand's foreign ministry reported.

The militia apparently was acting in cooperation with members of the Solomons' police "field force" a small paramilitary unit which acts as the Solomons Islands' de facto army.

The raid on the police armory added to the arms the militia has already amassed, most of which have been found by digging through World War II arms dumps. Guadalcanal was the scene of bitter fight between U.S. and Japanese forces during the war.

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