An Australian-led peacekeeping force has started to arrive in the Solomon Islands to restore order and disarm ethnic gangs.
The Australian heading the force was greeted by tribal dancers
The first Hercules C-130 landed at Honiara airport shortly after dawn on Thursday, with other soldiers landing from the amphibious assault ship, the HMAS Manoora.
Some 2,225 troops and police from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga are scheduled to arrive in the coming days. Together they will represent the region's biggest military deployment since World War II.
But one of the most notorious of the Solomons' rebel leaders, Harold Keke, is still defiant.
"My aim is independence," he told Australia's SBS television, speaking from his base in Guadalcanal.
Nick Warner, the Australian head of the intervention force, was greeted by tribal dancers and hundreds of onlookers, who had waited patiently in heavy rain to see the first detachments arrive.
Mr Warner said the operation was probably the Solomon Islands' last chance to recover from the lawlessness that has plagued it in recent years.
"But if it is the last
chance, it is a chance that is actually going to work," he said.
Meanwhile, regional leaders attended a send-off ceremony at Townsville in Queensland, with Australian Prime Minister John Howard describing the multinational operation as "unique".
Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza, who left Honiara on a navy patrol boat on Tuesday amid fears for his safety, returned to the capital shadowed by Australian security officers.
"The events which brought us to this place are not something we are proud of," Sir Allan said.
"But we recognise that the situation is beyond our control and
that we needed to ask for help."
In recent months, the Solomon Islands have been threatening to spiral into full-scale anarchy.
While Honiara itself is relatively calm, the countryside is lawless.
Armed gangs and hostage-takers roam, and more than 30 people have already been killed this year, including an Australian missionary.
The ongoing violence has almost bankrupted the country's 450,000 inhabitants, most of whom live at subsistence level.
Under the mission's rules of engagement, troops can "shoot to kill" if militias threaten their security.
Australia has shied away from intervening in the affairs of its Pacific neighbours, but since the Bali bombings there have been concerns that the Solomons archipelago could become a haven for terrorists, drug dealers and money launderers.
There is reported to be overwhelming backing for the foreign intervention, although some islanders are said to fear they will lose power when the force arrives.