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Solomon Rebels Strafe Pols’ Plane

June 8, 2000

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ Gunmen strafed a plane carrying two British mediators fleeing the Solomon Islands, where fighting between rival groups intensified and truckloads of armed teen-agers cruised streets.

The British politicians _ Glenys Kinnock and John Corrie, members of the European Parliament _ traveled this week to the Pacific nation to act as mediators between rival islanders in the Solomons chain.

But Corrie and Kinnock became trapped in their hotel in the capital, Honiara, as fighting intensified on the main Solomons island of Guadalcanal, and they decided to fly out on a chartered aircraft Tuesday.

``When we taxied down the runway there was a tremendous fusillade of shots at us,″ Corrie said. ``A small part of the aircraft stopped functioning and we had to go back into the terminal.″

``But the second time there were no problems,″ Corrie told the BBC from Papua New Guinea. ``We took off and have safely arrived in Papua New Guinea. Everybody is fine.″

It was not known which group _ The Malaita Eagle Force or the Istabu Freedom Movement _ fired on the plane, although the Malaita Eagles took the perimeter of the airport in fighting Tuesday.

Kinnock, the wife of European Union official Neil Kinnock, said the situation rapidly ``became completely lawless″ after Monday’s coup attempt.

``The police just seemed to concede to the (rebel) gunmen of the Malaita Eagle Force under Andrew Nori. There were armed men roaming around with homemade weapons and the streets were blocked and the airport closed,″ she said.

The indigenous Istabu have been fighting to force the Malaitans off Guadalcanal, where U.S. Marines in 1942-43 first began the long fight back against Japan in a grueling seven-month battle after the attack on Pearl Harbor

The Solomon Islands government crisis had appeared to ease Wednesday when rebels from Malaita island released Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu from house arrest and dropped demands that he resign.

But New Zealand’s foreign minister, Phil Goff, who has been closely monitoring the situation, said early Thursday that Ulufa’alu had apparently been placed back under house arrest.

Rebels fought around the capital Wednesday, and stranded foreigners reported seeing truckloads of armed teen-agers cruising Honiara’s streets.

``We’re talking about 15-year-old kids who have got machine guns. It is a little daunting,″ said Australian businessman Derek Harvey, adding that the rebels did not threaten foreigners.

Harvey said he drove to the airport Tuesday but turned around after seeing vehicles flee from shots fired by snipers sitting on top of coconut trees.

On Wednesday, the Malaitan spokesman, Nori, said that his forces fired from a stolen police gunboat on a rival rebel group on a beach, killing 100. Nori said his comrades on the ground watched from about 60 feet away.

``There were no civilians,″ Nori said. ``They were all carrying weapons. They were not holding a picnic.″

Nori’s claims could not be immediately confirmed. A Solomon Islands government spokesman and New Zealand officials said there was a gunboat attack in the morning, but they had no information about deaths.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, whose nation is 2,300 miles southeast of the Solomons and who has been monitoring the situation, said Nori’s claims appear to contain ``a significant level of exaggeration.″

At least 50 people have been killed or left missing in recent fighting on Guadalcanal, and 20,000 have been forced to flee their homes.

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