Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Malaitan militia offers to discuss handing over guns

REUTERS , HONIARA

The head of Australian-led peacekeepers in the Solomon Islands will soon meet one of the lawless South Pacific nation's warring factions, who yesterday said they were willing to surrender their guns.

The 2,225-strong force of police and troops also set a deadline yesterday for "thieves, drunkards and extortionists" in the hapless local police force to hand in high-powered weapons stolen from armories and illegally kept at home.

Nick Warner, the Australian diplomat leading the multinational intervention to end ethnic clashes and wipe out corruption, said Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF) co-founder Jimmy Rasta and others had gotten in touch and asked for talks.

"I would hope that that would lead to discussions later this week," Warner told reporters in the capital Honiara, large parts of which have been controlled by Malaitan militia since a police-backed coup in 2000.

The rebels, who began fighting Guadalcanal islanders in 1998 over land disputes around Honiara, said separately they wanted a 30-day amnesty to hand in their arms.

They said they planned a traditional surrender of arms to tribal priests on Aug. 15 and invited peacekeepers to attend.

"We don't want to fight them [peacekeepers] and we can't match them," Rasta told Australian radio from Malaita island.

Authorities were expected to declare an amnesty in Honiara this week for the surrender of some of the 1,300 illegal weapons in the 1,000-island chain that is home to 450,000 people.

At the same time, an Australian patrol boat and mine sweeper -- -- the latter due in two weeks -- will interdict inter-island arms smugglers and patrol the waters separating the Solomons from Papua New Guinea's troubled Bougainville island, which remains awash with arms after a 10-year war of secession.

Ben McDevitt, commander of the Australian federal police in the former British protectorate, said police had been given until 10:00pm to give back weapons, or face prosecution.

Guns are already trickling in.

On Saturday, the intervention force destroyed 25, consisting mainly of homemade rifles. McDevitt said another five weapons had since been surrendered.

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