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Australia Ventures Into Nation-Building

Deployment of a five-nation force in the Solomon Islands is the first step to restoring order, and perhaps playing a greater role in the South Pacific.

September 28, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — Six decades after U.S. soldiers landed here on Guadalcanal to drive out the Japanese, foreign troops have come back to this South Pacific nation, this time to halt years of ethnic fighting.

The quick -- and bloodless -- restoration of law and order by a heavily armed five-nation force led by Australia has won enthusiastic praise from the public.

The troops arrived in July at the invitation of the prime minister and parliament, and quickly took control of Honiara, the capital, and much of Guadalcanal, the main island. Without firing a shot, they arrested the country's most feared rebel leader, confiscated thousands of weapons and began investigating government officials suspected of corruption.

"People are very pleased to see the intervention here," said Victor Alikivara, 51, an unemployed electrician. "People venture everywhere now and go to places that used to be dangerous. The longer the intervention force stays, the better it will become."

Since 1998, the former British colony has been plagued by fighting between two of the country's main ethnic groups: natives of Guadalcanal and immigrants from the island of Malaita. The conflict has claimed hundreds of lives and forced 30,000 to flee their homes.

The deployment of 2,225 troops and police officers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea is the first step in a plan to rebuild the country. The multinational force is committed to remaining for a decade, if necessary.

"The Solomon Islands was on the verge of becoming a failed state," said Nick Warner, an Australian diplomat who is serving as special coordinator of the Solomon Islands intervention force. "I think we got here just in time."

The intervention signals an effort by Australia and New Zealand to play a greater role in the South Pacific, where several island nations struggle with poverty, graft and lawlessness.

Some Australian policymakers have called for a Pacific Union modeled after the European Union, with a shared currency -- the Australian dollar -- and greater police cooperation. But others accuse Australia of bullying the smaller Pacific nations and attempting to "re-colonize" the Solomon Islands.

Last month, Australian Prime Minister John Howard visited the country for six hours and praised the multinational effort.

"What has been achieved so far is only the first stage," said Howard, the first Australian leader to come to the Solomon Islands in more than a decade. "The next stage is a frontal assault on corruption and poor governance."

The Solomon Islands, 1,200 miles northeast of Australia, gained independence from Britain in 1978. With nearly 1,000 islands and more than 500,000 people, it is one of the largest nations in the South Pacific.

Older residents still think of the United States warmly for its part in freeing the islands from the Japanese during World War II.

Some of the heaviest fighting of the war was on Guadalcanal, where more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers and 20,000 Japanese died in 1942 and 1943. Dozens of sunken warships lie offshore in what is now called the Iron Bottom Sound. About 200 miles to the northwest is the site where a Japanese destroyer sank John F. Kennedy's patrol boat, PT-109.

With the wartime construction of the Solomon Islands' first airport, the town of Honiara became the postwar capital, drawing immigrants from other islands and sowing the seeds of conflict.

Today the country is mired in poverty, with most people subsisting on whatever crops they can grow and fish they can catch. Nearly 80% of the population is illiterate, and government corruption is endemic. Most of the forests have been logged and the timber shipped abroad.

In 1998, fighting broke out between Guadalcanal natives, who long had believed that their land had been overrun by outsiders, and Malaitans, who had come to control much of the country's economy, government and police department.

Malaitan forces, backed by some police officers, staged a coup in 2000, but sporadic fighting continued in many parts of the country. Australia brokered a peace agreement between the government and most rebel groups in 2002, but a climate of lawlessness still prevailed.

This year, the Malaitan-dominated government recognized that it had little chance of restoring order and accepted the offer of assistance from the Australian-led coalition.

When the first troops landed July 24, they moved quickly to take control of Honiara and outlying districts of Guadalcanal. The strategy of relying on overwhelming military superiority appears to be working, Warner said, although some trouble spots remain.

The intervention force declared a three-week amnesty and collected more than 3,600 weapons. Among them were about 600 military-style assault rifles, including many that had been taken from the police armory.

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