Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Solomon Islands peacekeepers destroy illegal weapons

REUTERS , HONIARA

An Australian-led intervention force destroyed 25 illegal weapons in the lawless Solomon Islands yesterday, and officials said they expect the surrender of guns to accelerate when an amnesty is declared next week.

Australians, New Zealanders, Fijians and islanders joined in a crowded ceremony in the South Pacific nation to drive an angle-grinder through the guns -- many of them home-made rifles but including a grenade launcher and a crossbow.

"Weapons such as these have brought fear to the hearts of our people for far too long," said Paul Tovua, head of the National Peace Council, which has struggled to end the ethnic fighting between Malaita and Guadalcanal islanders that began in 1998.

Tovua told Reuters the weapons had been handed in over the past three days, as the first of 2,225 foreign police and soldiers began arriving in the former British protectorate on amphibious landing craft and in air force transport planes.

Tovua said he expected the surrender of an estimated 1,300 illegal weapons in the nation of 450,000 to speed up next week, when an amnesty is declared in the ramshackle capital, Honiara.

"Most of these are coming from ex-combatants. I think the momentum will pick up," he said.

Up to 1,000 members of the intervention force are now on the ground in the Solomons, which has been held to ransom by armed ethnic militia since Malaitans, backed by supporters in the police, launched a coup in 2000.

Australian officials said an incident on Friday night in which a local police officer had been beaten up when he tried to break up a fight between militants was more like a drunken brawl.

Ben McDevitt, head of the Australian Federal Police detachment in the Solomons, told reporters it was not even clear who had started the fight.

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