Police boost to end Solomons violence

Australia approved some 500,000 Australian dollars worth of funding today to expand an international police force trying to quell ethnic tension in the Solomon Islands.

The current force of 10 police officers, mostly from Fiji, will be increased to 50, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Friday.

The new officers will be drawn from Pacific nations, not Australia, he said.

The force was sent to the Solomons to try to restore order in the capital of Honiara, where militant factions on either side of an ethnic land dispute have been skirmishing.

The increased Australian assistance follows a meeting between Downer and Solomons Prime Minister Bartholemew Ulufa'alua on Tuesday.

The violence is the latest flare-up between the Malaita Eagle Force and the Isatabu Freedom Fighters.

In the past 10 days, at least two men have been killed, another stabbed and a gun battle fought near the town's international airport.

The Malaita Eagle Force is resisting the Isatabu Freedom Fighters, which are trying to force out thousands of migrants from the nearby island of Malaita from the main island of Guadalcanal, where Honiara is located.

At least 50 people have been killed or are missing and 20,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the past 18 months by sporadic fighting between the groups.

Former Fiji prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka is leading a Commonwealth-sponsored effort to settle the dispute, although peace talks held a week ago failed because members of the fighting groups did not attend.

Downer said attempts to draw both sides into peace talks are continuing.