Force Leader Says Six Solomons Hostages Are Dead

HONIARA (Reuters) - Six missionaries taken hostage by Solomon Islands warlord Harold Keke are all dead, an Australian diplomat leading a multinational peacekeeping force in the lawless South Pacific nation said on Friday.

"It is with real regret that, when I asked about the six Melanesian brothers, I was told by Keke that they were dead," Nick Warner, head of the Australian-led intervention force, told reporters in Honiara.

Warner said he had been told of the missionaries' deaths by Keke during a meeting at Mbiti village, on the Weathercoast south of the capital, earlier on Friday.

He had no details of how or when the Anglican Melanesian Brotherhood ministers died. Pressed for details, Warner said: "All I was told is that the six are dead and I send my deep condolences to their colleagues and family members."

The hostages were shown on Australian television last month smiling and sharing a meal with Keke in his jungle stronghold.

Keke released three of nine hostages he was holding last month as a gesture of goodwill before the intervention force landed. It is not known whether he is holding any more hostages.

The deaths are the first confirmed since the 2,225-strong force of police and troops, the largest military deployment in the South Pacific since World War II, landed last month to restore order in the near-bankrupt Solomons.

Warner said intervention force members had not tried to arrest Keke after they were told of the hostages' deaths.

Following the news of the deaths, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called on Keke to surrender. "We believe that Harold Keke should hand himself in and submit himself to the normal processes of justice," he said.

Warner said Keke had agreed to hand in his weapons at a public ceremony next week. Keke, a mysterious former policeman said to be in his 30s, told an Australian TV reporter on July 23 that he would not surrender or give up his weapons.

A 21-day amnesty for the return of an estimated 1,300 illegal guns, some of them high-powered weapons stolen from a police armory during a 2000 coup, was declared on July 31. About 500 weapons have been handed in so far.

Keke and his followers are accused of killing dozens of people, including a government minister last year, as well as rape and torture since ethnic fighting broke out in 1998.

At least 1,200 people have fled Weathercoast villages in recent weeks to escape Keke and his followers, who have razed several villages. The refugees trekked overland to camps set up on Honiara's outskirts.

Hundreds of people have been killed since rival militias from Guadalcanal and Malaita islands began fighting in 1998 and the police-backed 2000 coup in the former British protectorate once known as the Happy Isles.

Malaitan militia leaders have agreed to surrender their weapons on August 15. Guadalcanal's Keke refused to sign an Australian-brokered peace deal after the 2000 coup.