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Monday, February 26, 2007

PM Sogavare backs down from plan to re-arm police

The Solomon Islands Prime Minister has backed down from his controversial plan to re-arm the police.

In the face of strong opposition, Manasseh Sogavare, says arms training for the police will continue but they will not bring back guns. Instead police from Papua New Guinea will provide armed support.

"We are listening to our people," Mr Sogavare said.

Mr Sogavare has faced strong protests from churches and trade unions as well as Australia over rearming police.

They were disarmed in 2003 when regional peacekeepers arrived to end years of conflict between warring ethnic groups.

In a recent open letter to Solomon islanders, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it was too early to consider arming police. A recent local newspaper poll showed 95 per cent support for keeping the police unarmed.

Over the past three years, Australian police under the regional peacekeeping force (RAMSI) have been responsible for providing armed protection for dignitaries, but Mr Sogavare said involving Papua New Guinea was a way forward for the country.

"Since Solomon Islanders don't want other Solomon Islanders holding guns, we are turning to other Pacific countries in the RAMSI contingent," he said.

But Mr Sogavare was critical of protests against rearming the police, saying the issue had been blown out of proportion and "the government's good intentions did not come out".

Meanwhile, RAMSI Special Coordinator, Tim George yesterday welcomed the decision by the Sogavare Government not to re-arm police at this time.

Mr George said he was very heartened by the announcement made by Prime Minister Sogavare in his closing remarks in parliament last Friday, that the Government had decided to not to go ahead with plans to rearm elements of the Solomon Islands Police Force.

RAMSI had previously made clear it did not support the plan to rearm the police.

“This decision follows an extremely robust debate and strong public opposition to rearming”, Mr George said.

“It is a very positive step that the Prime Minister has decided, as he said on Friday, ‘to listen to the people’, of Solomon Islands.”

The Special Coordinator also welcomed the Solomon Island Government’s decision also announced by the Prime Minister on Friday to take up the offer for Papua New Guinea police officers serving as part of RAMSI’s Participating Police Force to provide support to the Solomon Islands Police Force responsible for the security of the Prime Minister and the Governor General.

Mr Sogavare told parliament on Friday that a diplomatic note was being sent to PNG to accept the offer for the PNG police contingent of RAMSI to support the police’s Close Protection Unit.

“This offer from the country who is currently interim-chair of the Pacific Islands Forum is very timely”, Mr George said.

“From RAMSI’s beginning Papua New Guinea has made a large an extremely valuable contribution to the Regional Assistance Mission with its civilian advisors, police and soldiers.

Special Coordinator Tim George said it is another very good example of how the real strength of RAMSI comes from the regional nature of the mission.

Sources: ABC & RAMSI

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