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Friday October 20, 2000

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Solomon groups hold peace parade

By The Associated Press

HONIARA, Solomon Islands - Fighters from two opposing factions staged an impromptu peace parade yesterday to celebrate the signing of a peace deal.

For the first time since ethnic tensions boiled over into fighting almost two years ago, members of the rival groups shook hands and rode together in cars through the capital, Honiara.

Residents emerged from homes and businesses, cheering and crying tears of joy on seeing rebels from the Isatabu Freedom Movement and the Malaita Eagle Force traveling together, without weapons.

Leaders of the two factions signed a peace deal Sunday in Australia aimed at ending guerrilla skirmishes that have left more than 70 people dead in the former British colony. The Pacific Ocean archipelago is 1,600 miles northeast of Sydney with a population of about 466,000.

Under the agreement, the fighters are to disarm and return to their villages by the end of November.

Thousands of people have been forced from their homes by the fighting, between natives of the Solomons' main island, Guadalcanal, and neighboring Malaita.

Guadalcanal natives, known as Isatabus, say Malaitans have been taking their land and jobs in recent years and have began expelling Malaitan migrants.

Malaitans formed a militia to fight the expulsions and, with help from renegade police officers, toppled the Solomons' government in June.

Previous cease-fire agreements have failed to hold for long, but yesterday's parade was a strong sign the conflict may be easing.

Nollen Leni, deputy premier of Guadalcanal province, said the decision to hold the parade was made spontaneously by fighters from both groups.

"This is a very good start," he said. "It's their agreement and its good to see that they are happy with it."