20 May 2003

Solomon's church continues hospital work despite murder

10:36 am on 20 May 2003

The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Solomon Islands says it is continuing normal operations at Atoifi on Malaita despite Sunday's killing of its acting chief executive, Lance Gersbach.

Mr Gersbach, who was 60, was beheaded while working on a building site at the church's hospital.

His body is to be flown to Australia today.

The church has run a hospital and trained nurses at Atoifi for 30 years. and its spokesman, Joe Talemaitoga, says it will continue its normal health care services.

He says a new acting CEO has been flown in, though five expatriates have been asked by their respective governments to leave the area.

Police have suggested the killing of Mr Gersbach may have been over an ongoing land dispute, but Mr Talemaitoga says the church has no information on this.

"we really do not know the motive or any background behind the killing ...there was nothing we felt had brought about this agitation and that is why we are co-operating with the police fully...whatever the police are saying is their prerogative and really I can't comment on the theory they are issuing now"

Meanwhile, the Australian foreign minister says Australia and Solomon Islands are looking at ways to strengthen law and order on the Malaita island where the missionary was beheaded.

Alexander Downer says he has discussed the issue with the Solomon Islands prime minister, Sir Allen Kemakeza, in Okinawa during the recent Japan-Pacific Islands forum leaders' meeting.

Mr Downer says they are looking at options for how Australia might be able to strengthen law and order in Solomon Islands beyond what Australia is already doing.

He says there's still a real problem with the capacity of the police and, at some levels in the police, the willingness of the Solomon Islands police to enforce law and order."

And an Australian opposition politician says the millions of dollars Australia has invested in helping police in Solomon Islands has been wasted.

Kevin Rudd, who is the Labor Party's foreign affairs spokesman, says the Townsville peace agreement has now collapsed completely.

He says Australia needs to take a tough approach to restoring order in dealing with regional governments in attacking the collapse of security.

Otherwise, he says, people living in the Melanesian countries will try to find their way to a safer country like Australia.