Australia-led force pressures Solomons warlord

The head of the peace-keeping mission says rebel leader Harold Keke has agreed to talks.

In this small tropical paradise turned battlefield, rebel leader Harold Keke looms large.

Villagers in the southern region of Guadalcanal interpret a summons to "see Harold" as a one-way ticket to the grave. Escapees of his enclave in the Solomon Islands describe how he has created three "Sundays" in the week - days when village men must pray for him at special shrines, separate from their churches. Some who have fled tell of killings carried out by Mr. Keke's forces that involve stoning and beheading.

Tired of living in fear and being squeezed for money to finance Keke's war with the government, yet fearful of mingling with the governing Malaitan ethnic group, the refugees caught in the middle are cheering an Australian-led intervention force that arrived on July 23.

It's an open-ended mission that could get bogged down in the ethnic strife that spawned Keke's Guadalcanal Liberation Front. But Australia and its coalition partner nations say they cannot afford to allow this failed state to become a possible haven for transnational crimes and terrorism.

Peace offer

The arrival of the 2,000-strong force has already moved Keke to offer peace talks. In 2000, his forces had refused to sign a peace agreement involving the government and most other armed factions. This time, observers believe Keke will probably give himself up, perhaps in return for information he has about the coup three years ago by Malaitan militants.

"The bottom line is [Keke] or his men have killed a couple of dozen people in the last couple of months," says police commissioner Bill Morrell, sent from Britain to reform the police. "It would be my hope that those crimes are investigated fully and the individual prosecuted."

Years ago, Keke was a carpenter in Honiara, working for the police force that would become his sworn enemy.

He then was recruited into the government's "Special Field Force," an irregular paramilitary force used to prevent incursions from the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, the site of a separatist conflict. That island is geographically in the Solomons group, but by an accident of history ended up with Papua New Guinea. Its people are related to those of the western Solomons and easily move back and forth between the two areas.

Paramilitary turns rebel

For much of the 1990s, Bougainville was as much a concern to Australia and its neighbors as the Solomons is now. Rebels on that island felt their resources were being siphoned off by outsiders - in their case the Australian-owned Panguna mine, which the rebels wrecked.

In 1998, Keke began a rebellion over local land rights, similar to the one in Bougainville. His fighters took up arms against the Malaitans, the ethnic people of a neighboring island who were favored during British colonialism, given jobs, and encouraged to relocate to Honiara, on the north coast of Guadalcanal.

Over time, Malaitans came to dominate the government and police forces, and spread out onto "unused" land in Guadalcanal. However, virtually every piece of land in the Solomon Islands has traditional owners, fueling Keke's rebellion.

Keke is ethnic Ko, as are most of his fighters. The refugees from the region belong to another group, the Poleo. The two groups - which are wary of each other - speak different languages and use pidgin English to communicate. According to the refugees, their group was largely expected to subsidize Keke's war, to the benefit of his own Ko people.

Not only did the Ko demand thousands of Solomon Island dollars from Poleo villagers, they also wanted so-called "Kastam Money," traditional heirlooms that are used to buy a bride.

One of the refugees produced a sample he had guarded carefully. It is six feet long and made up of coral beads on a piece of twine. Other examples may contain dolphin teeth. Such heirlooms are no longer made and could fetch a high price in the Western world.

In an effort to stop the armed lawlessness on the islands, the intervention force declared a three-week amnesty at the end of July for the return of illegal weapons by militias. It is the third attempt by the Solomons since 2000 to round up illegal weapons.

Past failures

The previous two amnesties failed as armed militias roamed Honiara at will. New allegations are coming out that the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza undermined a gun amnesty last year by telling some Malaitan militants to keep their guns as protection against Keke's forces.

Ben McDevitt, the Australian head of the police contingent in the force, pledged that this disarmament campaign would be different.

All parties involved will be pressured, he indicated, saying that there will be no "no-go zones" in the Solomon Islands.

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