Solomon islands – An Australian and a Briton working to map a deadly legacy of unexploded World War II munitions have been killed in the South Pacific after a bomb they were working on detonated.
Sunday's blast was inside the house the two explosives experts were sharing in a suburb of the Solomon Islands' capital, Honiara. Police and the humanitarian group they worked for, Norwegian People's Aid, expressed shock that the men had removed the munition from the field and taken it to their neighborhood.
"We determine what to do with the UXOs after the survey has located them," said police inspector Clifford Tunuki of the unexploded ordnance.
Per Hakon Breivik, the aid organization's director of disarmament, said he had known one of the men, Stephen Atkinson, 57, of Britain, for more than 20 years, and that Atkinson and the other bomb expert, Trent Lee, 40, of Australia, were devoted professionals.
Breivik said his group did not have information about why the ordnance was in their home, though he voiced alarm at their actions. He added that the aid group's activities in the Solomon Islands had been suspended.
The deaths bring to light a perilous heritage hidden in the sandy earth of the Solomon Islands, an archipelago about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia, the site of fierce fighting between Japanese and Allied forces. The islands, including the main island of Guadalcanal, are littered with shells and bombs left behind.
In the 75 years since, dozens of people in the Solomon Islands are believed to have been killed or maimed by the munitions. "Every single place that was either garrisoned or fought over has got some sort of dangerous legacy," said John Rodsted, lead researcher with SafeGround, an advocacy group for the removal of explosives left behind by war.
Unexploded world war-era munitions are still a problem in many parts of Europe — dozens of devices, including grenades, are removed each year from backyards, fields and construction sites in Britain, France and Germany. While the discoveries often prompt evacuations, damage is uncommon.
But in the Solomon Islands, a country where more than 75% of the population works as agricultural laborers, the buried munitions can make farming a fatal occupation.
"They are scared of their land," Rodsted said.
Lee, the Australian expert, acknowledged the danger of his work last month in a Facebook post describing a U.S. naval round as "pretty much the most dangerous WW2 ammunition we find." The device, he wrote, was "cocked and ready to fire."
"One bump," he added, and it's "all over."
New York Times