By ASSUMPTA BUCHANAN
HOW 29 detained Bougainvilleans escaped police custody in Gizo in the early hours of Wednesday is now the subject of a police investigation.
Police Commissioner Matthew Varley told journalists yesterday that the 29 men were detained at Gizo police station in a training room that has security and fencing around it.
“From what we believed at this stage, one of the gates areas was left unattended and the men were able to leave unimpeded,” Mr Varley said.
“That is part of our investigation,” he added.
Mr Varley said at this stage there are no information to suggest any misconduct or any impropriety on behalf of the police rather than a serious lapse in security.
“It appears that there is a lapse in security through a changeover of shift in the morning hours between the night shift officers who are on guard duty and morning shift.”
The 29 men were on their way to the nearby town of Noro when police intercepted and brought them over to provincial capital Gizo.
They were believed to have crossed the border illegally and were heading to Noro following the suspicious death of a young man in Noro. That youth is a relative of the Bougainvilleans.
Meanwhile, Mr Varley said they are working very closely with community leaders, church leaders and local members of the community as well as the Western Province premier and provincial government to negotiate a search, secure the safe return of these men.
“At this stage, we are in a negotiation process to identify them and return them.
“So I cannot get into the details of that at this time.”
Mr Varley added that at this point in time the situation is calm, and there have been no outbreaks of violence that they are aware of.
“There have been no reported injuries or risk of safety to any person or police officer.
“We are working on a plan at the moment to identify where they are and to work with them to bring them safely back in custody.
“Our mission is to return them into immigration custody but at the same time to provide reassurances to community of Gizo and to reduce their fear to a high visibility police presence.
“And we have been doing that overnight.
He said they have a taskforce of around 100 police officers in Gizo at the moment dedicated to this operation ensuring public safety and to locate the men.
“We have large scale police operation overnight to make sure community safe and briefing received in morning is community understand this and business have started to re-open and things have returned to normality in Gizo.”
The curfew that is in place in Gizo between 10pm and 6pm has not yet been called off.
Mr Varley said they understand the community is still very much concerned about this issue and the legitimate question around how the escape occurred.
He said part of their inquiry and part of their investigation at the moment is and will be how the escape occurred.
“For that reason, I have sent yesterday sent as part of contingents to Gizo two officers from our Professional Standards and Internal Investigation (PSII) team who are now on the ground making inquiries and reporting to me about what occurred.
“At this stage, the inquiry is at its early stage, it is too early for me to make decisions or judgments on exactly what happened because we are still gathering facts.
“Our number one priority at the moment has been on the successfully locating the men and the safety of the community.
“We understand that in time there are serious questions for the RSIPF to answer and I don’t shy away from that.
“We accept responsibility for what had occurred and we are working very hard to make sure the situation is returned to normal safely and peacefully.”
Mr Varley told journalist that on the morning of February 21, the three boats carrying the 29 nine men from the Bougainville area left Maleai village in the Shortland islands and allegedly heading to Gizo and Noro with an intention to meet and claim compensation from the government over the death.
“Obviously some of that group, of men from Bougainville were relatives and family members of the deceased man and many of them expressed that they were unhappy with the police investigation and there was a continued belief that there was foul play into the course of his death.
“Despite the police best effort to explain the case and to be able to convince people to allow police investigation to take its course, we are unsuccessful in that negotiation,” Mr Varley said.
He added that the Boungainvilleans have not gone through proper immigration processes to leave the special immigration area designated between Bougainville area and Shortland Islands.
“I want to make it clear that whilst the police and the government of Solomon Islands understands and respect the traditional area between Solomon Islands and Bougainville operating in the Shortland area, it is very important to understand that there are a number of rules and limitations governing that space.
“And in particular there were permission for people to breach further into Solomon Islands territorial waters as this group did and heads towards Gizo.”
The three boats were intercepted by the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) and the men escorted to the Gizo Police Station.
No arrests have been made so far.