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 Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 14:39 GMT
Solomon Islands: bloodied and bankrupt
An MEF fighter
Warlords still exert extreme power in Solomon Islands
The BBC's Phil Mercer

A boat carrying relief supplies is finally on its way to two remote South Pacific islands hit by a tropical cyclone, but the area's problems go far beyond storms.

Widespread damage has been seen on Tikopia and Anuta though any loss of human life remains unknown.

Direct communication with people on the islands has so far been impossible.

Tikopia and Anuta are part of the snaking Solomon Islands archipelago. They lie in Temotu province, the most isolated of the group.

Australian air force crew assesses damage inflicted by the cyclone
Australia has had to step in to pay for the relief effort

If a major disaster has occurred, the former British colony would struggle to finance a large-scale relief operation.

The country of about 500,000 mostly Melanesian people is near bankruptcy after years of ethnic fighting and poor administration.

It is estimated that its economy contracted by 25% in 2001.

The country is dependent on foreign aid and owes more in overseas debt than it generates in income.

Plans to send navy patrol boats to investigate the aftermath of Cyclone Zoe were thrown into chaos earlier this week when the authorities revealed they did not have enough money to buy fuel.

There followed a row over who would pay the crew's wages - and more delays to the relief effort.

A donation from the Australian High Commission in Honiara has finally enabled the rescue mission to go ahead, five days after the storm hit.

Civil war

The Solomon Islands are part of an "arc of instability" around north-eastern Australia, which includes Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji.

The economic decline has coincided with the rise in ethnic tensions, which escalated on the main island of Guadalcanal in 1998.

Timber yard in Solomon Islands
The country has been hit by political uncertainty and social chaos
Residents there resented the influence of settlers from other islands, particularly the neighbouring province of Malaita.

It developed into a bloody stand-off between rival militias over land rights, jobs and wealth.

A state of emergency was declared on Guadalcanal in June 1999 as the Solomons sank deeper into a vicious civil war between opposing paramilitary forces, the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) and the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM).

The fighting eventually brought down the government.

On 5 June 2000, MEF militants, together with disaffected police officers, took the Prime Minister, Bart Ulufa'alu, hostage.

A week later he resigned, renewing the spiral of political uncertainty and social chaos.

'Climate of lawlessness'

A peace deal brokered by Australia officially ended the ethnic conflict in October 2000.

It provided for the decommissioning of weapons and a general amnesty for former combatants.

The war may be over but the violence is not.

Armed gangs act with impunity and warlords still exert extreme power in some districts.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs says there is a "general climate of lawlessness and criminal violence, particularly in Honiara".

Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza, who recently paid off extortionists who had fired shots at his official residence, faces one of the toughest challenges in the Pacific.

The region's powerhouses - Australia and New Zealand - believe only an immediate improvement in the law and order situation in the Solomons can prevent further social and economic decline.

Map showing Solomon Islands

See also:

02 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
01 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
18 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
21 Dec 02 | Country profiles
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