First troops arrive in Solomons
HONIARA, Solomon Islands -- The first troops from a multinational intervention force have arrived in the strife-torn Solomon Islands after being airlifted from the northern Australian city of Townsville.
The first soldiers set foot in the capital Honiara around dawn Thursday, forming the advance guard of the 2,300-strong force sent to the Pacific island nation to restore order following years of ethnic clashes and militant activity.
A total of 13 Australian C-130 Hercules transport plane flights are bringing troops, police and equipment to the Solomons Thursday as part of the largest military deployment in the Pacific region since World War Two.
Australian navy vessel the HMAS Manoora is anchored offshore to serve as a headquarters for the peacekeeping mission.
It is expected there will be joint patrols of peacekeepers and local Solomons police later Thursday in a show of force and solidarity to the gangs and militias which have taken over large parts of the capital and outlying regions.
The intervention force has permission to respond with lethal force to situations where the public or the peacekeepers are seriously endangered.
The Australian-led force -- which also includes troops from other Pacific nations such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and New Zealand -- was sent at the request of the Solomon Islands government.
"It was obvious that neither the Parliament nor the executive government was in control of things in this country. We knew we were just going into anarchy," Joses Tuhanuku, a Solomon Islands lawmaker, told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the office of Solomons' Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza has confirmed the embattled leader had been whisked away from Honiara to an undisclosed location but denied he was fleeing to avoid an abduction attempt.
"His departure was not related to any specific threat against him," the office said in a statement released Wednesday.
The force will remain in the Solomon Islands until the local police can again assert control over the lawless elements in the nation and government structures and legal systems are operating effectively.
One of the key militia leaders in the Pacific nation, warlord Harold Keke, warned Wednesday against peacekeepers taking sides, saying he and his followers were fighting for land rights and independence and battling a corrupt central government.
In an interview with Australia's SBS television network, Keke said the aim of his group's actions was independence.
Keke has been accused of killing more than 50 people and burning scores of villages on the remote Weather Coast region of Guadalcanal island, which is about six hours by boat from Honiara.
"I would like (Australian Prime Minister) Howard to look carefully and establish who is fighting for right and who is wrong and who is lying to get Howard to believe their story," Keke said.
The warlord said he and his followers were fighting for their rights because "we don't want the government to steal our land and resources," adding that those issues were the root causes of the confrontations.