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Surrender of firearms in Solomon Islands had unintended consequences - Marshall

A New Zealander who headed the Solomon Islands' police believes it can maintain peace as forces from New Zealand and other countries leave after an almost 14-year stint in the country.

Peter Marshall was seconded to head the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force for four years from January 2007, a time in which he quelled rioters protesting the jailing of a militia leader and oversaw the surrender of thousands of firearms.

The latter had unintended consequences - communities could no longer cull crocodiles, meaning police had to call in help from the international forces.

“There were many unfortunate people who were taken by crocodiles. Indeed, I saw one crocodile there that was close to 18 feet long and had basically attacked and consumed a number of children,” Marshall said.

Now High Commissioner to the Cook Islands, Marshall played a crucial role in building the force's capability after civil conflicts between 1998 and 2003 saw more than 100 killed and about 40,000 driven from their homes and another outbreak of violence in 2006 burnt down Chinatown.

“The Tensions” were driven by conflict over land and work following immigration to Guadalcanal Island and saw an initial force of about 2200 military and police officers, primarily from Australia and New Zealand and with representatives of other Pacific Island states.

Police Minister Paula Bennett is in Honiara to today mark the official end of the 14-year-long Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

In 2013 Ramsi was scaled back to a policing mission, focused on helping build the capability of the local police. Most of the 16 Kiwi police officers in the country will fly home tomorrow. In total, about 800 New Zealand police have served in the Solomons.

Today has been declared a public holiday, with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in a speech calling RAMSI "divine intervention", that meant "our children can play freely".

However, some locals are concerned about what happens now the intervention is over - particularly because police impartiality broke down during the Tensions, with some officers involved in violence.

Tensions over land remain. About 40 per cent of Honiara's population - about 28,000 people - live in informal settlements, with no power, running water and without adequate sanitation.

There are also very high levels of unemployment, particularly among young men. Lowering those numbers is one focus of New Zealand's aid programme, which allocated $30.1m (US$22 million) in 2015/16.

Marshall, who became New Zealand Police Commissioner after his return from the Solomons, said the police force had dramatically changed, and was now close to 50 per cent female.

“During the time I was there dozens of middle-ranked and senior officers left ... who were seen as being part of the old guard. Since then there has been extensive leadership training.

“I can perfectly understand why communities would always want to have a RAMSI presence, with money and equipment remaining there. But there was always going to be a finite date ... they have been going for 14 years, it was somewhat unprecedented,” he said.

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