By Nick Squires
BBC, Port Moresby
Australia is sending nearly 300 police and public officials to its former colony Papua New Guinea, as part of an ambitious five year mission to try to stamp out rampant crime and corruption. But this deployment is not without its risks.
PNG exports are gold, petroleum, copper, coffee, palm oil and logs
Founded by a British adventurer in 1873, Port Moresby commands spectacular views of the Coral Sea and a mosaic of bays, islands and headlands.
But the sweet-smelling frangipani trees and bright red splashes of bougainvillea which dot the hillsides, fail to mask a city in crisis.
Two-thirds of the population lives in makeshift shanty towns and unemployment stands at around 70%.
In the 29 years since Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia, the country has gone backwards in almost every respect, from health and education to corruption and crime.
Expatriates and middle class Papua New Guineans live behind high walls and coils of razor wire, more reminiscent of Johannesburg than the South Pacific.
The residential compound in which Australian diplomatic staff live, is so formidably protected that locals have nicknamed it "Fortress Fear".
At the heart of the crime epidemic, which has made Port Moresby one of the most dangerous cities in the world, are gangs of armed criminals known as "raskols".
The first wave of deployment saw 44 Assisting Australian Police (AAP) officers on the streets
The word rascal normally conjures up images of naughty school boys. But in the Pidgin English spoken by people in PNG, it denotes something much more sinister.
Far from being loveable rogues, raskols are violent thugs. They are notorious for robberies, rapes and armed hold-ups, not just in Port Moresby but across the country.
Locals tell stories of raskols holding up minibuses in broad daylight, robbing the passengers of their wallets and watches and then raping the women one by one.
Tackling these gangs will be one of the biggest challenges for the 210 Australian police who are being deployed to Papua New Guinea.
Last week they conducted their first foot patrol, in Port Moresby's biggest market, notorious for pickpockets and thieves. Dodging wheezing buses and stray dogs, they were quickly surrounded by dozens of jubilant, welcoming locals.
"It's very good the Australians are here," one woman told me. "The PNG police are corrupt and violent. We're just as scared of them as we are of the raskols."
The Australians immediately endeared themselves to the locals by trying out some of the Pidgin they had learned during a week of intensive language training.
"Ever since we arrived 10 days ago people have been coming up to us, shaking our hands," said Sergeant Ian Hudson, from Brisbane, whose previous overseas postings include East Timor, Fiji and Cyprus.
Across the city, in Port Moresby's oldest-established shanty town, a group of raskols considered their response to the arrival of the Australian police.
They do not hate their former colonisers, they insisted. But if the Australians confront them during a robbery or a carjacking, they will not hesitate to open fire.
"Raskols shoot at the PNG police all the time, so they'll do the same thing to the white cops," said 35-year-old Rocky Murray.
He showed me the bullet wounds he sustained four years ago when an armed robbery turned into a fire fight with local police. One bullet went through his leg, and a second through his arm.
Another remains lodged in his skull, leaving him blind in one eye.
The deployment is part of Australia's new role as peacekeeper in the South Pacific
Three of his gang members and two policemen were shot dead during the clash.
"Life is hard" said another raskol, pointing to the surrounding open sewers, pot-holed roads and corrugated iron shacks.
"The only way to survive is to hold up buses and snatch bags. If the Australians confront us, we will shoot."
Senior Australian police are uncomfortable discussing the likelihood of casualties. They say their officers will be able to use a range of options - including batons and capsicum spray - before having to draw their 9mm semi-automatic pistols.
But in a city where violent crime is a regular occurrence, some sort of confrontation seems inevitable.
The risk will increase over the next few months as the Australian police deploy to other towns, including Mount Hagen in PNG's rugged highlands, which has been wracked by tribal fighting.
Twenty years ago, the tribes fought each other with bows and arrows; now they use M16 assault rifles.
The deployment to Papua New Guinea is the latest sign of Canberra's determination to act as the peacekeeper of the Pacific.
For decades Australia was sensitive to charges of neo-colonialism, and allowed its Pacific neighbours to forge their own futures and make their own mistakes. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bali bombings a year later and the increasingly parlous state of some island nations, prompted a dramatic rethink.
The fear is that failed or failing states could be exploited by international criminals, people-smugglers or terrorists.
Over the next few months it will become clear whether Australia's latest foray into the South Pacific heralds a new era of peace and progress, or the start of another bloody chapter in Papua New Guinea's troubled history.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 9 December 2004 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.