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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
The floating sentry to the Solomons

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Honiara

HMAS Manoora, standing guard off the coast of Honiara, is a grey, imposing reminder of the military muscle behind the multinational mission to save the Solomon Islands.

The Australian warship is the offshore command centre for the intervention aimed at arresting the troubled archipelago's descent into anarchy.

The view from the deck is spectacular. It belies the chaos that is slowly strangling this country of 500,000 mostly Melanesian people.

The tips of lush, volcanic mountains rise above a band of low cloud, while coconut trees line the coast like sentries.

Even a mile or two out to sea, the heat and humidity drench the skin.

HMAS Manoora
HMAS Manoora is the nerve centre for the intervention force
Our trip to the Manoora began on board a navy landing craft.

It picked us up near the beach where the Americans launched an attack on the Japanese in 1942.

The battles of Guadalcanal were pivotal and helped shape the outcome of World War II here in the South Pacific.

The ghosts of the conflict remain - the shipwrecks, the submerged fighter aircraft and bullet casings.

The Australian-led peacekeeping mission is the largest military operation in the region since those bloody days 60 years ago.

Floating giant

HMAS Manoora has a crew a 240. It has been deployed straight from a tour of duty in the Gulf, where Australia was the third combat force in the US-led campaign in Iraq.

The 159-metre-long supply vessel weighs 8,500 tonnes. It is a floating town.

Morale, we were told, was good. So was the food. During the transportation of a contingent of Australian troops to the Solomons earlier this month, more than 2,000 meals a day were being served.

The ship's medical facilities are more sophisticated than many public hospitals in Australia.

There is an operating theatre, intensive care units and an army of doctors, surgeons, nurses and dentists.

There are, however, no plans to make this expertise available to Solomon Islanders just yet.

Health services in Honiara are as decayed as most other public institutions on the islands, as a walk through Honiara's desperate hospital will confirm.

Two grey Sea King helicopters sit on the deck of the Manoora.

Lieutenant Adam Wells, one of the pilots, told BBC News Online that there could be some difficult times ahead.

HMAS Manoora
The ship has attracted a lot of attention from locals in Honiara

"We're here to support the police as they restore order here, but it's a bit of an unknown (situation) at the moment. The worst-case scenario would be to do the job for real and bring casualties back to the ship," he said.

Illegal weapons are the focus of the early days of intervention.

The trafficking of firearms between islands within the Solomons archipelago, and further north into Papua New Guinea's secessionist province of Bougainville, is a major worry for the peacekeepers.

Their main task is to disarm the ethnic militias who have controlled and abused this troubled country for years.

Smaller Australian navy boats will be given the job of tackling the gun-runners.

HMAS Manoora's commanding officer Martin Brooker said the peacekeeping patrols would not be allowed to chase suspected smugglers beyond the waters of the Solomon Islands.

"Hot pursuit across the border is not an option," he said.

The military build-up continues. In the skies above Honiara, New Zealand Iroquois helicopters and Australian transport aircraft can be heard throughout the day.

On the streets, Australian police are now on routine patrol with their local counterparts.

About 1,200 soldiers, sailors and police officers from across the South Pacific have been deployed so far.

That figure will double in the coming weeks as the peacekeepers look to extend their grip beyond the capital and into the provinces.

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