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July 1, 2000       

  

HONIARA, Solomon Islands, (AP) - Lawmakers elected a new prime minister in the Solomon Islands on Friday in a move observers hope will end months of ethnic fighting.

     

"My new government will address the crisis that has been affecting this nation this last 19 months," opposition leader Mannasseh Sogavare said after the vote, which he won 23-21. "My government is committed to bring Solomon Islands into national unity and reconciliation."

     

There was no immediate reaction from the former government or from rival rebel groups fighting on the Pacific nation's main island.

     

But a spokesman for the main rebel group, Andrew Nori, previously said his group, from Malaita Island, would accept any of the three candidates.

     

One candidate, Francis Bill Hilly, withdrew Friday so as not to split the government side's vote.

     

Balloting went ahead amid tight security after a vote scheduled for Wednesday was called off because lawmakers refused to attend, fearing for their safety.

     

All but six of Parliament's 50 legislators attended Friday's vote. The six missing lawmakers were all from the government side. 

      

Sogavare replaces ousted Prime Minister Bartholemew Ulufa'alu, who resigned under duress two weeks ago after armed rebels seized Honiara and briefly held him at gunpoint.

     

The rebels from the island of Malaita, motivated by a long-running ethnic dispute over land, raided a police armory June 5 to seize weapons for the coup.

     

The rebels were angry that in the past 18 months the indigenous Isatabus of the Solomons' main island, Guadalcanal, have expelled 20,000 people who migrated from nearby Malaita in recent decades to find jobs and land. Up to 60 people have been killed in recent months.

     

In a speech following his swearing in, Sogavare said he would seek a lasting peace by Christmas and pledged to offer an amnesty to both warring militias once they surrendered their arms.

     

Nori, a spokesman for the Malaitan rebels who control Honiara, had warned that the cease-fire that has held for more than two weeks could shatter if the impasse were not resolved quickly.

     

"If the politicians are not willing to resolve the current crisis politically, the (Malaita rebels) may pursue the military option," he said.

     

But Sogavare signaled his intention to tackle the tensions by announcing the formation of a new ministry of national unity, reconciliation and peace "to specifically deal with the crisis and its related activities."

 


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