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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 07:00 GMT
Lawless Solomon area now 'safe'

By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney

One of the regions hit hardest by the recent lawlessness in the Solomon Islands has been declared safe by Australian peacekeepers.

An Australian soldier (C) gives out sweets to children in Auki
The restoration of order on the Weather Coast was a priority for peacekeepers

Foreign troops have now withdrawn from the remote Weather Coast.

Hundreds of people displaced by ethnic violence are now expected to return home.

It is almost four months since a multi-national intervention force landed in the struggling South Pacific nation, which had endured years of bloodshed, corruption and economic decline.

The brutality witnessed on the Weather Coast symbolised a nation's descent into anarchy.

For many villagers, the isolated region on the main island of Guadalcanal was simply too dangerous. Hundreds fled their homes to live in makeshift camps in the capital, Honiara.

Reports of rape, torture and execution were commonplace.

The restoration of law and order on the Weather Coast was a priority for Australian-led peacekeepers, who arrived in the Solomons in July.

Key suspects were eventually taken into custody, through careful negotiation rather than the blunt arm of military force.

Senior rebel commanders, including the former policeman Harold Keke, now face a number of serious charges, including kidnap and murder.

The deaths of six indigenous missionaries have formed part of a wide-ranging investigation.

The situation on the Weather Coast is considered to be stable and under the control of the police.

As a result, troops from Australia and New Zealand have been withdrawn as the overall size of the peacekeeping operation continues to be reduced.

There is still a military presence, however, on the island of Malaita, reflecting concerns that the menace posed by some former militants there has not yet been overcome.

The Solomon Islands were torn apart by years of fighting between rival ethnic gangs from Malaita and Guadalcanal.

At the heart of the unrest were tensions over land rights, internal migration and jobs.

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