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The BBC's Mike de Villiers
"The conflict is a clash of land and culture"
 real 28k

John Corrie, MEP, in the Solomon Islands
"The situation is extremely tense"
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Wednesday, 7 June, 2000, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Civil war fears in Solomons

The conflict between rival ethnic groups in the Solomon Islands is on the brink of turning into a civil war, says New Zealand's Foreign Minister Phil Goff.

Mr Goff told the BBC that the militiamen who have held Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu at gunpoint for two days had gone back on a promise to release him.

Earlier, a statement signed by the Malaita Eagles militia and the government said Mr Ulufa'alu was "at liberty to move out of and into his residence and offices at will".

Mr Goff, who has been closely following the situation in the South Pacific nation, said armed militants were still surrounding the prime minister's house.

The militants - from Malaita island - have seized the capital, Honiara, on the main island Guadalcanal. They have clashed heavily with the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM), who are indigenous to Guadalcanal island.

Beach fighting

Malaita rebel leader Andrew Nori said on Wednesday that his forces on a stolen police boat had fired on Guadalcanal rebels killing 100 people on a beach.

Malaita rebels
The Malaita rebels seized key buildings in Honiara
"There were no civilians," Mr Nori told the Associated Press. "There were all carrying weapons. They were not holding a picnic."

However there was no independent confirmation of any casualties and Mr Goff said that Mr Nori's statement contained "a significant level of exaggeration".

The recent fighting between the rival islanders has left at least 50 people dead or missing, and 20,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

The Eagles recently bombarded a coastal village, including a school there, but no children were hurt as they had already been evacuated.

A diplomat in Honiara said fighting had also flared again near the airport, where the two rebels groups had clashed on Tuesday.

Militia takeover

The Malaita Eagles took over the capital on Monday and arrested Mr Ulufa'alu, demanding his resignation.

They raided police armouries, seized patrol boats and disarmed all police who declined to join them, according to reports.

Solomon Islands: key facts
Population: 450,000
Spread over six large islands and many small ones
One of region's poorest countries and getting poorer
Exports: Cocoa, copra, fish and timber
Main partners: Australia and Japan
History: former British protectorate

The prime minister has offered to resign if it will help achieve peace in the islands.

But the rebels have said he can stay in office until 15 June when a parliamentary session will decide his fate.

The IFM is trying to force migrants from the nearby island of Malaita off the main island of Guadalcanal. It accuses them of stealing their land and jobs.

Mr Ulufa'alu is himself from Malaita but is regarded as a turncoat by some.

Commonwealth concern

The Commonwealth has threatened to suspend the Solomon Islands unless constitutional rule is restored soon.

Solomon Islands prime minister
Ulufa'alu: Accused of failing to address the ethnic problem
The eight-member Commonwealth Ministers Action Group, which met in London on Tuesday, expressed "deep concern" over the situation in the country.

The ministers demanded the armed rebels withdraw their forces from Honiara and remove all constraints on the prime minister.

Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said there was no doubt the rebels had been influenced by events in Fiji, where the prime minister has been held hostage since last month.

Australia, one of the country's most important trading partners, and the United States have both condemned the takeover.

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See also:

07 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Kinnock escapes hail of bullets
06 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Commonwealth threatens Solomons
05 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Coup in Solomon Islands
28 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
Peace deal in Solomon Islands
05 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Pacific unrest linked?
07 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Ethnic tension behind Solomons coup
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