Asia-Pacific

Australian bomb specialist killed in Solomon Islands blast

The blast area was sealed off and officers of the explosive ordnance disposal team and forensics department were at the scene. Source: RSIPF

A blast in the Solomons capital Honiara has killed an Australian man and a British man who were working on a project to find unexploded World War II bombs.

An Australian man and a British man working to identify unexploded World War II bombs in the Solomon Islands have been killed in a blast in the capital Honiara.

Australian Trent Lee and Briton Stephen "Luke" Atkinson died in a rented apartment in Tasahe in West Honiara between 7.30pm and 8pm on Sunday night, Solomons police and their aid agency have confirmed.

Both men were bomb specialists working for an overseas-funded project that maps unexploded bomb sites for later disposal by specialist police teams.

Following the blast, residents rushed to the scene to find the men seriously injured, the Solomons Star newspaper reported. They were rushed to Honiara's National Referral Hospital.

One of the men died at the scene while the other was confirmed dead at the hospital.

Officers from the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force conducting forensic work at the site of the blast.
Officers from the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force conducting forensic work at the site of the blast.
RSIPF

Photographer and International Campaign to Ban Landmines member John Rodsted said he had known Mr Atkinson for some 20 years.

"I’ve known Luke for about 20 years and we’ve worked together in Sri Lanka, Palau, Lebanon and different places," he told SBS News.

"Luke is a professional and he knew what he was doing,  It’s a dangerous environment and it’s a dangerous business. It's always a tragic thing to lose anybody.

"It could be anything. I haven't seen any details apart from the police are investigating. So, I don't really know."

A Solomons police statement said the blast area had been sealed off and officers of the explosive ordnance disposal team and forensics department were at the scene.

"We call on members of the public in the Tasahe area to please stay well away from the area of the incident and allow RSIPF officers to do their work as we investigate this tragic incident," Inspector Clifford Tunuki said.

The residential flats also served a the project office for the bomb survey team and investigators will try to determine why explosives were present.

The two men were working for Norwegian non-government organisation, Norwegian Peoples Aid (NPA), conducting a non-technical survey on the contamination of unexploded ordnances in the Solomons, the police media statement said.

The US State Department funds the project.

NPA deputy secretary-general Per Nergaard confirmed in a statement that Mr Lee and Mr Atkinson had died in the blast.

"This is a tragic accident. So far, we know that there has been an explosion with fatal consequences. Our main priority now is to offer assistance to relatives and colleagues and to clarify what has happened," he said.

"The safety and security of our staff is our highest priority."

NPA secretary-general Henriette Killi Westhrin said the organisation was devastated by the loss of two good colleagues.

"Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to their families, relatives and staff," she said.

The NPA has 1850 deminers working in 19 countries worldwide.

Honiara is on the island of Guadalcanal, which was a major battleground when US forces invaded to dislodge the Japanese occupiers in World War II.

A program has been underway to clear unexploded ordnance in Honiara before the 2023 Pacific Games.

Australia Federal Police stationed in the Solomon Islands under a $79 million aid program are helping their local counterparts.

“The Australian Federal Police is providing advisory support to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force investigation into the death of two persons last night caused by an explosion,” the AFP told SBS News in a statement.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told SBS News it is “providing consular assistance to the family of a man who died in the Solomon Islands" but would provide no further comment due to privacy obligations.

Additional reporting by Stefan Armbruster

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