Many Evacuated From Solomon Islands
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ Hundreds of foreigners _ mostly women and children _ boarded an Australian navy ship Thursday docked off the Solomon Islands, escaping rebels battling in the jungles and capital of the South Pacific nation.
A radio report hours later indicated a possible easing of tensions on the islands: the prime minister appeared to have been freed from house arrest and warring groups were trying to agree on a truce.
During the 2 1/2-hour evacuation, 250 people were ferried in dinghies and landing craft to the HMAS Tobruk, which was to spend the night anchored in the harbor of the capital, Honiara, said Australian Defense Minister John Moore.
The ship, which can carry 800 people, would take on more who want to leave Friday morning, he said. There are 700 Australians and 220 New Zealanders on the islands.
Witnesses said the evacuation seemed relaxed and generally free of panic.
``We expected there to be a hassle, possibly arguments and disruptions, but it’s (the evacuation) all calm and orderly,″ said Russell Byfield of New Zealand.
Radio Australia Honiara correspondent Dorothy Wickham said those leaving also included Canadians and New Zealanders that work in Honiara.
After days of negotiations and with parliament expected to hand his government a vote of no confidence next week, Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu was finally set free on Thursday night, radio journalist Johnson Houimae told The Associated Press by telephone.
There were no armed men surrounding Ulufa’alu’s residence early Friday, as there had been since Monday when rebels seized the premier, Houimae said. New Zealand’s National Radio said Ulufa’alu was apparently being guarded by police, and not rebel gunmen, early Friday.
Migrants from the nearby island of Malaita have been fighting indigenous Istabu rebels in an effort to push them off the main island of Guadalcanal. The Solomon Islands, slightly smaller than Maryland, are 2,230 miles northwest of Wellington.
The airport east of Honiara has been the scene of the heaviest fighting this week between indigenous Isatabu rebels who want to force their Melaitan foes off the main island of Guadalcanal.
But in his comments to the AP Friday, Houimae said the indigenous militants had finally agreed to terms of the truce, but rebel migrants were still discussing it.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, who has been closely watching the situation, said he and other ministers from Commonwealth countries hoped to visit the Solomon Islands soon for a firsthand look, although the airport remains closed.
Rebels led by lawyer Andrew Nori claimed they used a stolen police gunboat, armed with a machine gun, to kill about 100 of their rivals Wednesday on beaches near the capital’s airport. But on Thursday, the report was still unconfirmed.
Solomon Islands radio said a reporter could not get close enough to the scene to determine if there were any bodies. Goff had said Wednesday that Nori’s claims seemed exaggerated.
In the last few months about 50 people have been killed or gone missing while 20,000 had to abandon their homes.
Guadalcanal was the scene of a bloody and drawn-out World War II battle, when U.S. Marines began their island-hopping Pacific assault on Japanese forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Whether to leave the Solomon Islands was a difficult decision for Ian Judson, an accountant from Brisbane, Australia.
``At the moment we don’t feel our personal safety is as much at risk for us to leave right at this very moment,″ he said, ``and we’re both trying to tidy up a few of our things at work before we finally leave the country.″