Australia and New Zealand are poised to lead a multinational force to restore order in the Solomon Islands, a Pacific nation torn apart by anarchy and ethnic fighting.
The two governments will decide on a course of action after consulting officials who ended a three-day mission to discuss security options in the former British protectorate yesterday. Political leaders in the Solomons say they would welcome armed intervention, and members of the public have expressed similar sentiments. "The sooner the better," said Reuben Moli, the premier of Malaita island, yesterday.
The Solomons, the scene of a famous Second World War battle on the main island of Guadalcanal, were once regarded as a tropical paradise and nicknamed the Friendly Isles. But rival militia gangs have run riot there since 1998, when simmering ethnic tensions exploded into armed conflict between inhabitants of Guadalcanal and settlers from neighbouring Malaita.
Hundreds have died, and 20,000 people have fled Guadalcanal. Crime is rampant, corruption is rife and the country is in effect bankrupt.
Australia is concerned about an "arc of instability" in its backyard that includes the Solomons, regions of Indonesia and volatile Papua New Guinea. Sending a force to the Solomons would signal a major foreign policy shift for Canberra, which has historically been reluctant to intervene in the South Pacific.
The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said the Solomons faced "chronic lawlessness and, as a result, inevitable economic decline".
An Australian missionary was beheaded last month in the latest upsurge of violence.
A government think-tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, published a report this week calling for 150 armed police to be dispatched to restore order in the capital, Honiara. It said the force should be backed by a company of light infantry on stand-by to fly to the Solomons at a few days' notice.
The report's main author, Ellie Wainwright, said the aim would be to use "maximum ... and potentially lethal force" to disarm the militias and bring criminals to justice. At present, she said, many criminals and militia members "are not only allowed to operate with impunity, they have reached and are ... in league with the very highest echelons of the police and in politics."
Mr Moli said that armed intervention had been endorsed by nine provincial premiers as well as representatives of government and opposition political groups, churches and community organisations.