Foreigners evacuate Solomon Islands

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hundreds of foreigners - mostly women and children - boarded an Australian navy ship Thursday docked off the Solomon Islands, escaping rebels battling in the jungles and capital of the South Pacific nation.

Hundreds of foreigners - mostly women and children - boarded an Australian navy ship Thursday docked off the Solomon Islands, escaping rebels battling in the jungles and capital of the South Pacific nation.

During the 2 1/2-hour evacuation, 250 people were ferried in dinghies and landing craft to the HMAS Tobruk, which was to spend the night anchored in the harbor of the capital, Honiara, said Australian Defense Minister John Moore.

The ship, which can carry 800 people, would take on more who want to leave Friday morning, he said. There are 700 Australians and 220 New Zealanders in the islands.

Witnesses said the evacuation seemed relaxed and generally free of panic.

"We expected there to be a hassle, possibly arguments and disruptions, but it's (the evacuation) all calm and orderly," said Russell Byfield of New Zealand.

Radio Australia Honiara correspondent Dorothy Wickham said those leaving also included Canadians and New Zealanders that work in Honiara.

Honiara was calm Thursday, despite the turmoil that has gripped the Solomon Islands since armed rebels seized the prime minister on Monday and rival groups from two islands then escalated a conflict that has gone on for 18 months.

The Solomon Islands, slightly smaller than Maryland, are 2,230 miles northwest of Wellington.

The airport east of Honiara has been the scene of the heaviest fighting this week between indigenous Isatabu rebels who want to force their Malaitan foes off the main island of Guadalcanal.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said that despite an agreement on Wednesday to resolve the Solomon Islands government crisis, the nation's prime minister, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, was under house arrest Thursday.

Goff, who has been closely watching the situation, said it was unclear whether a rebel negotiator, lawyer Andrew Nori, had reneged on the deal signed a day earlier, or whether rebel leaders had lost control of their gunmen.

The New Zealand official said he and other ministers from Commonwealth countries hoped to visit the Solomon Islands soon for a firsthand look at the situation, although the airport remains closed.

Nori's rebels claimed they used a stolen police gunboat, armed with a machine gun, to kill about 100 of their rivals Wednesday on beaches near the capital's airport. But on Thursday, the report was still unconfirmed.

Solomon Islands radio said a reporter could not get close enough to the scene to determine if there were any bodies. Goff had said Wednesday that Nori's claims seemed exaggerated.

In the last few months about 50 people have been killed or gone missing while 20,000 had to abandon their homes.

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.

Whether to leave the Solomon Islands was a difficult decision for Ian Judson, an accountant from Brisbane, Australia.

"At the moment we don't feel our personal safety is as much at risk for us to leave right at this very moment," he said, "and we're both trying to tidy up a few of our things at work before we finally leave the country."

Comments