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Peace Talks in Solomons Fail to End Struggle

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From Associated Press

Warring rebels in the Solomon Islands said they would stop shooting long enough to let foreign diplomats visit, but that was all they agreed on before peace talks collapsed Friday, New Zealand officials said.

A delegation, including Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, arrived this morning in Honiara, the capital, where it planned to meet with government leaders and rebels from both sides, said Brad Tattersfield, a spokesman for New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry.

Efforts to achieve a 14-day truce between the Malaita Eagle Force and the Isatabu Freedom Movement crumbled when the Malaita rebels declined to sign on, New Zealand High Commissioner Nick Hurley said.

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However, radio reports said the islands’ prime minister was apparently no longer under house arrest. There were no reports of fresh fighting.

The rebel groups signed a joint statement Friday calling a two-day truce so that the foreign ministers could land and take off safely from the capital’s airport.

“We hope that we will be able to help them resolve their problems,” and get the peace process “back on track,” Downer said before his arrival in the Solomons.

Rebels indigenous to the main island, Guadalcanal, have been fighting for 18 months to evict migrants from the nearby island of Malaita. More than 50 people have been killed or disappeared, and about 20,000 have fled their homes.

Much of the fighting has been concentrated around Honiara’s airport.

Malaita militants teamed up with paramilitary units this week and raided the Solomon Islands armory. They then seized Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu at gunpoint Monday and demanded that he resign. The prime minister is a Malaitan, but some Malaitans accuse him of being a turncoat.

Ulufa’alu reportedly was freed from house arrest Thursday, and was to face a vote of no confidence in the parliament next week.

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The Malaita rebels dropped their demand that he resign. However, using machine guns and a stolen police gunboat, they began attacking rebels from the Isatabu Freedom Movement.

Australia moved in a navy ship, which by Friday was loaded with about 470 foreigners wanting to flee. The ship was to stay moored off Honiara until a New Zealand frigate arrived today to take over evacuation duties.

The Solomon Islands are 2,230 miles northwest of Wellington, and 1,600 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

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