Solomon Islands warlord takes hostages

A Solomon Islands warlord has taken six missionaries hostage on an isolated coast, the Church of Melanesia said.

Former policeman Harold Keke has for the last four years controlled the rugged and isolated Weathercoast on the southern side of Guadalcanal that has been the scene of a civil war in the Pacific Island nation.

The Weathercoast is barely accessible and the limited authority in the capital Honiara seldom reaches over the mountain range to Keke's area.

Keke is now believed to have killed at least 50 people in the last year, 20 of them in the last month. One of his victims was a cabinet minister whose body has not been recovered.

Archbishop Ellison Pago of the Church of Melanesia said in a statement that Keke and his supporters were holding six missionary brothers hostage.

"The recent report from someone who managed to escape from the camp is that the six brothers are still alive but held as prisoners," he said.

Meanwhile Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation reported that a government envoy to the Weathercoast, Japanese born businessman Yukio Sato, had received a letter from Keke confirming he had the six missionaries.

Sato would not reveal what was in the letter or the demands being made. He was confident the letter came from Keke because it carried a special sign they had previously agreed on.

The battered and divided Solomon Islands police have occasionally mounted operations to capture Keke but are not currently engaged in efforts to apprehend him.