The West

In a small Solomon Islands mountain village in a clearing ringed by jungle and ramshackle huts, WA army reservist Lt Dean Lampard said goodbye to a small crowd of wiry-haired children.

One of the smaller boys, Ben Chris, looked shyly up to the 34-year-old WA police officer and part-time Digger.

"We will miss playing soccer with you," he said. "Thank you for helping our country, our village."

More than nine years after being asked to help quell violent ethnic militia groups tearing the nation apart, the Australian Army is about to withdraw from the islands.

Since 2007, four contingents of WA reservists have served in the Pacific nation to deter a return to the lawlessness of 2003 when more than 100 people died and 20,000 were displaced.

Lt Lampard and about 80 Diggers from the WA 13 Brigade, who soon head home after four months, are expected to be the last WA troops to serve in the country.

Yesterday, on that makeshift pitch with rickety goalposts where Lt Lampard stood in the Guadalcanal mountains, the legacy of peace the Diggers helped create was distilled in the carefree laughter.

Instead of a rifle, Lt Lampard took a soccer ball to Gifu village, a sign of the times. "The ball is mightier than the sword," he joked.

Mt Austin, where the village stands, hosted a bloody Japanese last stand in World War II and spent cartridges and rusted shells still litter the jungle.

Holes in police outposts from more recent violence also mark Guadalcanal's capital Honiara.

Many islanders fear a return to the violence and do not want the troops to leave yet.

But a Defence spokesman confirmed a pullout as soon as the second half of next year if the security situation remained calm.

The military contingent charged with deterring violence includes troops from several Pacific nations and the Australian presence is just one part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

RAMSI is made up of and funded by 15 Pacific nations, including Australia, and works with the local Government to build security.

It will continue to maintain a force of about 170 police from its member nations but even they are taking a step back.

RAMSI Deputy Special Co-ordinator Wayne Higgins said the Royal Solomon Islands Police, almost non-existent after the tensions in 2003, had been built up to the point it had frontline roles once handled by foreign police and soldiers.

"They are getting increasingly professional, increasingly confident," Mr Higgins said.

Former Solomons deputy police commissioner Edmond Sikua, the Ministry of Police's new permanent secretary, said though RAMSI help was still required and more work was needed, he did not think the military units had to stay.

Australia's RAMSI contribution, which has cost more than $1 billion, is expected to continue for at least four more years. The mission also claimed the lives of two Australian peacekeepers, including West Australian Jamie Clark.

Lt Lampard said he was going home confident that the Australian effort had a positive impact.

"I don't feel bad about us withdrawing," he said. "I think things are more than stable enough here for us to depart safely."

As he left the village, children clamoured to shake his hand. One little boy had this parting message: "We will be thinking about what friendship you gave to us. Please come back soon."

The West Australian was a guest of Cadet, Reserves and Employer Support (Australian Defence Force)

The West Australian

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