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Coup In Solomon Islands

Rebels on one side of an ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands captured the prime minister Monday, put up roadblocks around the capital and overran key installations, including police stations, officials from Australia and New Zealand said.

However, the rest of the government remained in power and planned to meet to discuss the future of the prime minister, who had offered to resign last week, the New Zealand officials said.

Six armed rebels from the Malaita Eagle Force captured Prime Minister Bartholemew Ulufa'alu early this morning, a rebel spokesman told a Solomons Islands radio station monitored by officials in Wellington, New Zealand. The rebels demanded his resignation and placed him in "protective custody." It was not immediately clear where he was being held.

Earlier reports that other government leaders also had been taken hostage appeared to be incorrect, New Zealand Foreign Ministry spokesman Brad Tattersfield said. However, phone lines to the Solomon Islands were not working and details remained sketchy.

Australian foreign affairs officials said the rebels had overrun police stations, the Government Telecommunications Center and key intersections in the capital, Honiara, overnight. "These actions represent a significant deterioration in the tensions between ethnic groups," a government statement said.

Diplomats in New Zealand said the Malaita Eagle Force had raided a police armory in Honiara and stolen weapons.

It was not immediately clear how much support the shadowy rebel group was receiving on the Solomon Islands' main island, Guadalcanal. The militia apparently was acting in cooperation with members of the Solomons' police "field force" a small paramilitary unit which is the closest thing the nation has to an army, a witness in Honiara told The Associated Press by e-mail. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Solomons are located 2,230 miles northwest of Wellington and 1,600 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. For the last 18 months, the Malaita Eagle Force and another rebel group, the Isatabu Freedom Movement, have been fighting on Guadalcanal, where thousands of migrants from the nearby island of Malaita live.

The Isatabu force wants to push the Malaita migrants off Guadalcanal. The Malaita Eagle Force is resisting the Isatabu's effort, and at least 50 people have been killed or left missing in the fighting and 20,000 forced to flee their homes. The Malaitan force has been using arms found by digging through World War II arms dumps on Guadalcanal, the scene of bitter fighting between U.S. and Japanese forces during the war.

Honiara, located on Guadalcanal, is largely populated by Malaitans, including Prime Minister Ulufa'alu. In one recent skirmish, the headless body of one rebel was left on a street in Honiara. It was not clear which side the victim was fighting on.

Peace talks between the warring factions in the Solomon Islands wee called off last week, shortly before they were to have started.

In New Zealand, Foreign Minister Phil Goff condemned the rebels' takeover.

"Mr. Ulufa'alu was made prime minister by legitimate and democratic process and should only lose his position in the same manner," Goff said in a written statement.

He said the government was due to meet this afternoon to discuss Ulufa'alu's future as prime minister. Ulufa'alu reportedly offered last week to resign as confidence in his ruling coalition crumbled.

The apparent coup attempt was the second in the South Pacific in recent weeks. Armed rebels captured Fiji's prime minister and more than 30 legislators in that country's parliament more than two weeks ago. The hostages were still being held today as the acting military government sought a peace deal with the rebels.

In the Solomons, Malaitan Eagle Force spokesman Andrew Nori told the Solomons radio station that rebels had taken over Honiara in an attempt to accelerate the peace process and prevent ethnic violence from tearing apart the island nation, New Zealand's foreign ministry reported.

But Goff said their actions could have the opposite effect.

"The actions of those responsible ... risk a broadening conflict, which in the worst scenario could involve civil war against the Guadalcanal militant force," he said.

Honiara Mayor Donald Fugui today broadcast a statement to the city's residents warning them to stay home, said Tattersfield, the New Zealand official. The streets of the capital were reportedly calm. However, Australians were warned by their government to avoid traveling to the South Pacific nation.

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