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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 June, 2003, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Solomons villages torched
Rebel fighters near Honiara
Civil war three years ago left about 200 dead
Hundreds of people have fled their homes after militants torched their villages on the Solomon Islands.

Supporters of the self-styled warlord Harold Keke forced up to 1,200 people to stand as human shields to prevent police landing on nearby beaches, police say.

"They kept villagers at gunpoint on the beaches," police Assistant Commissioner Wilfred Akao told the Associated Press news agency on Friday.

The Solomon Islands have suffered serious civil unrest in recent years, due to ethnic rivalry between indigenous residents on the main island of Guadalcanal and new settlers from Malaita.

Australia and New Zealand are considering sending a small military force to support an international police unit.

This is in response to a request by the Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Sir Alan Kemakeza.

Crime motives?

Two villages were burned down in the remote Marasa district on the main island of Guadalcanal.

About 200 people are reported to be sheltering near Honiara, the Solomon Islands' capital, and aid agencies say they expect many more over the weekend.

Keke is understood to have attacked the villages because he believed some inhabitants were informing police of his activities.

His supporters have been accused of killing at least 50 people recently.

Last year, he also claimed responsibility for killing a cabinet minister.

Help needed

Of several militant leaders, Keke is the only one who refused to sign a peace accord in 2000 aimed at ending three years of ethnic violence that has killed an estimated 200 people and displaced 20,000.

At least 1,000 people had been displaced by the recent violence, Red Cross coordinator Rex Para told AP.

The foreign ministers of both Australia and New Zealand say the situation has reached crisis point, with half a million people in the Solomons in desperate need of help.

Missionary beheaded in Solomons
19 May 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Solomon Islands peace broker killed
11 Feb 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Solomon Islands
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Solomon Islands
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Solomons peace deal reached
15 Oct 00  |  Asia-Pacific

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