It was women and children first as HMAS Tobruk last night began an evacuation of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians stranded by the crisis.
By dusk up to 300 women and children had been ferried from Honiara beach and wharf by the Tobruk’s landing craft and dinghies, with the men told to stay ashore and await evacuation later.
The flight of expatriates reflects international recognition that little can be done to stop Solomon Islands from sliding into civil war.
Australian high commissioner Dr Martin Sharp and his New Zealand counterpart, Nick Hurley, acted as beach marshals, getting the women and children into orderly groups and crossing them off lists.
By last night, about 250 Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians had been transported to the Tobruk on barges and dinghies from the Point Cruise Yacht club. The evacuation was to continue today.
The Tobruk, the navy’s heavy lift ship, could not get into the wharf because of its draught and lay offshore from the Solomon capital, which is under the control of Malaita Eagle force guerrillas following Monday’s coup.
“I had to get my wife and daughter on to that boat,” one Australian businessman said.
“We just decided for the sake of our daughter, we should send my wife and daughter out.”
The mood of the evacuation was mostly calm and, at times, even jovial.
However, a former Melbourne man complained that he was forced to pay $717.50 for his wife and $72 for his eight week-old child to board HMAS Tobruk. Andrew Simpson, general manager of the King Solomon Hotel in Honiara, said he was ordered to complete an Australian Government debt form for the voluntary evacuation. “I think the majority of people were taken advantage of by the Australian Government and they will be relying on their employers to recover the cost,” he said.
Honiara’s few hotels were full to capacity with those who could not, or did not want to, leave immediately.
They may be evacuated to the Tobruk In the next 48 hours.
There were about 700 expatriate workers and tourists, mainly Australians and New Zealanders, on the main island of Guadalcanal when the Malaita Eagles staged their coup at dawn on Monday.
One of those not going immediately was New Zealander Anne Wilson, 38, of Amberley, north of Christchurch. “I want to get out but I want to be safe when I’m going,” she said at the King Solomon Hotel with her partner, John Smith, 45, also of Amberley. “If I go I’ll be on my own and I wouldn’t know where I’m going. I’ll feel safer staying with John.”
Ms Wilson said she did not feel safe on the streets of Honiara. “When you’re on the street you feel vulnerable. The militia walk up and down the streets and they’ve got big machineguns.”
Continued fighting between rival militias on Guadalcanal has also prompted acknowledgements by senior Australian defence officials and politicians that Australian and other troops could soon he committed to help solve the crisis.
In Tokyo late yesterday, Prime Minister John Howard said: “The situation is evolving and I don’t want to say yes or no to a peacekeeping effort. I don’t think it in appropriate at this present time.”
A senior Australian defence official last night told The Age that if security concerns prevented a Commonwealth delegation, including Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil from flying into Honiara today or tomorrow as planned, “it significantly ups the ante as to what solution is ultimately required”.
“At the moment we have no mind to get into peacekeeping or peace enforcement, which is what it would be, but you have to approach these things one step at a time.”
At least two RAAF Hercules aircraft were last night on standby.
Defence Minister John Wore said the Malaita Eagle Force, which seized Honiara on Monday, had undertaken to allow the evacuation to proceed peacefully.