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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 00:12 GMT 01:12 UK
Solomons enjoy new-found stability

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

Not a single shot has been fired in anger during the Australian-led rescue mission to the troubled Solomon Islands.

It is almost a year since peacekeepers from across the South Pacific arrived to restore order in one of the region's poorest countries after years of ethnic unrest.

Man in canoe, Rarumana island, Western province
Normal life has returned to the islands

"It's been a great success," said Nick Warner, the high ranking Australian diplomat who is in charge of the multinational rescue mission.

Key militant commanders are in custody, charged with dozens of serious offences, including murder.

"Most of them will spend most of the rest of their lives in prison," Mr Warner told News Online.

Thousands of weapons have been taken off the streets. The country has been cleansed and it now enjoys a hint of that rare commodity - hope.

"God has answered our prayers," a market-stall holder in the capital, Honiara, told the BBC.

The dusty capital bears little resemblance to the bandit-ridden city it was 12 months ago.

Rounding up those responsible for the chaos has been uncomplicated. Almost overnight the thriving trade in extortion and intimidation ended.

The intervention in the Solomon Islands was the biggest military operation in the South Pacific since the Second World War.


What now lies ahead will be a test of patience and resolve, as the international rescue mission enters a new phase.

Market stalls with canoes on the bay in Gizo, Western Province
The Solomons is one of the region's poorest countries
Phil Goff, New Zealand's Foreign Minister, said the task of rebuilding a shattered country was still in its early stages.

"The challenge ahead is of restoring the services, restoring growth in the economy, establishing good governance and dealing with the problem of corruption," he said.

Reforming the police service is another priority. During the dark days of the tensions, rogue officers fuelled the crisis by teaming up with militant gangs.

The Solomon Islands, which lie to the east of Papua New Guinea, were thrown into chaos by an ethnic war fought over land rights, jobs and political power.

With the agreement of the beleaguered government in Honiara, Australia ordered the peacekeeping operation to begin last year. Canberra said it feared that failing states could become havens for criminal gangs and terrorists.

It is expected that most of the foreign soldiers - who have come from Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea - will be sent home by the end of July. Their job is done, as late afternoon games of volleyball for the aircrews at Honiara's international airport clearly show.

'Explosive ingredient'

The troops are being replaced by an army of civilian bureaucrats. The battle to secure a solid future for this impoverished country will be fought by accountants and administrators. A contingent of 300 police officers drawn from nine South Pacific countries will stay on indefinitely.

There are those, however, who believe it is too early to declare victory in the war for peace and stability.

Paul Roughan of the Civil Society Organisation in Honiara believes that while the animosity between rival gangs has been suppressed by the peacekeepers, it lies very close to the surface.

We have 80 different languages, and to bring them into one nation is a very big task
Father Adrian Smith

"The tensions are still very much alive," he explained to the BBC. "There are indications in some places that they might be starting to re-emerge."

This mostly Melanesian country of 460,000 people, spread over a scattered archipelago, gained independence from Britain in 1978. The population speaks dozens of languages and enjoys vastly contrasting traditions.

The Catholic Archbishop of Honiara, Father Adrian Smith, told BBC News Online that these cultural differences have been the "explosive ingredient" in the recent ethnic tensions.

"I think we're still working on a level of fear," the Irish-born Archbishop warned.

"We have 80 different languages, and to bring them into one nation is a very big task."

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