The prime minister of the lawless Solomon Islands fled into hiding in fear of a kidnap or murder attempt on the eve of the arrival of 2,250 Australian-led police and troops, officials said yesterday.
Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza's office said he left the dilapidated capital Honiara on Tuesday night and his location would remain secret until the peacekeepers begin deploying in 24 hours to restore order in the near-bankrupt South Pacific nation.
"There are fears there may be a last attempt" by former ethnic militia members to derail the intervention force, a government official said, asking not to be identified.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp reported that Kemakeza left on a patrol boat amid fears of a kidnap attempt. Solomons media said a group may have been planning to assassinate him.
The Solomon Islands parliament last week sanctioned the deployment of an Australian-led multinational peacekeeping force to restore law and order after years of ethnic militia fighting.
An air of excitement hung over Honiara yesterday as residents eagerly awaited "Operation Helpem Fren," as the deployment is called in the pidgin English that loosely unites the 450,000 Solomon Islanders and their 60 different languages.
On a sun-scorched hilltop outside Honiara, 1,200 refugees from the militia-controlled remote Weathercoast, said they hoped the peacekeepers would quickly hunt down warlord Harold Keke.
"Harold Keke has destroyed our homes, killed our pigs. We really need them to deport this man or make him face justice, said Ephraim Chasi, standing in a huddle of 30 huts.
The government has reassured Solomon Islanders the force was coming to help them "get back our lives and our country" after years of ethnic clashes and a police-led coup in 2000.
But few in Honiara, a town of 40,000 built at the site of a World War II US military airfield, needed reassurance.
Only former members of rival militias from Guadalcanal and Malaita islands, who killed hundreds and then turned to crime and extortion when Australia brokered a ceasefire after the 2000 coup, have anything to fear from the force.
"They're all running away," said Titus Lesly, a taxi driver. "They think that if they stay they will all be arrested."
The problem with the Solomons, scene of some of the fiercest battles between US Marines and the Japanese in World War II, is not street crime and random violence, residents say, but institutionalised corruption and warlordism.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into the economy through aid and timber exports since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1978.
But there are few signs of that money in the rundown streets that swiftly crumble into rutted dirt paths outside Honiara.
Public servants have not been paid in months. The treasury lies bare because ex-militia members recruited as special police constables use their weapons to demand "goodwill" payments.
The Australian government, which on Tuesday formally approved the 2,250-strong force, says restoring order to the capital, protecting government departments from extortion are its first priorities.