Attack reported on Solomon Islands provincial capital

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The Independent Online

Militants seized a provincial capital in the Solomon Islands early Sunday, thrusting a third warring faction into an already volatile crisis, a diplomat said.

Militants seized a provincial capital in the Solomon Islands early Sunday, thrusting a third warring faction into an already volatile crisis, a diplomat said.

One person was killed in the captured city of Gizo, but a rebel commander in Honiara, the national capital of the Pacific island nation, said it was unclear whether he was a victim of the fighting or a drunken brawl.

The attack in Gizo, which is in the western Solomon Islands, stirred fears of revenge killings and possible new violence in Honiara, said a Western diplomat, who spoke to The Associated Press only on condition his name not be used.

The violence raised concerns about U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who were being evacuated through Gizo because officials had thought it would be safe, according to an American who helps track citizens in the region for the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea.

It was not clear how many Peace Corps volunteers had been passing through Gizo or whether they were still there on Sunday, said the American, architect Don Boykin, who lives in Honiara and works with the embassy in neighboring Papua New Guinea on a volunteer basis.

The diplomat who would not be identified said 45 armed men raided the Gizo police station and telecommunications facilities early Sunday.

The diplomat said some, if not all, of the militants had come from Bougainville, an island in eastern Papua New Guinea that was the scene of a 10-year secessionist war that took thousands of lives before a cease-fire was signed in 1998.

An Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio report said the Papuan militants apparently teamed up with local Solomon Islands forces, adding a third armed group to the conflict.

Phone lines were cut so little information was available from Gizo, which is located in the western Solomon Islands about 370 kilometers (230 miles) northwest of Honiara.

The latest troubles broke out as more Australians and New Zealanders left the Solomon Islands on military airplanes Sunday.

Pushing luggage carts stacked high with bags, foreign tourists and workers joined a new wave of people leaving the Solomon Islands, fearful that a shaky truce between rebels could erupt into civil war.

Many of the evacuees, mostly Australians and New Zealanders, said their government officials called them Saturday night and advised them to leave on special evacuation flights.

"They said to get on anything that you can," said tourist Ron Studdock, who manages a cabinet making company in Sunshine Coast, Australia. "Apparently it's not safe for us anymore."

About 480 foreigners had left Saturday on an Australian warship taking them to Cairns on a voyage that would last several days.

The foreign ministers of Australia and New Zealand flew to Honiara on Saturday to meet with government officials - including Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, who was seized at gunpoint by rebels on Monday and now faces a vote of no confidence in the parliament on Thursday.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, who went home Sunday, met with leaders of the Malaita rebels who seized Ulufa'alu and also a representative of rival Isatabu rebels.

The Isatabu Freedom Movement is run by natives of the main island of Guadalcanal, who are trying to force Malaita people who migrated from the nearby island of Malaita, off of Guadalcanal.

A rival guerrilla group, the Malaita Eagle Force, is fighting to stay. The Malaita rebels captured Ulufa'alu on Monday and also seized machine guns and ammunition to obtain an edge in weaponry over the Isatabu rebels, who use mostly single-shot rifles and homemade guns.

After the Malaitans used a stolen police gunboat to attack Isatabu beach encampments last week, the Isatabu side said it was willing to sign a 14-day truce.

A Malaita leader, attorney Andrew Nori, said his side refused to sign on, although he said the factions have effectively agreed on an informal truce that has been holding.

The Solomon Islands are 3,600 kilometers (2,230 miles) northwest of Wellington and 2,575 kilometers (1,600 miles) northeast of Sydney, Australia.

Guadalcanal was the scene of a bloody and drawn-out World War II battle, when U.S. Marines began their island-hopping Pacific assault on Japanese forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor.