Rebel Islanders put down their bows and arrows, took garlands of roses and showered a puzzled "invasion force" of British and French troops with blossoms today as they arrived to end a mini-uprising on the coconut isle of Espiritu Santo.
Rebel leaders had been convinced in advance that resistance would be pointless, and when the force ot 200 British Marines and French paratroopers landed in transport planes and helicopters and advanced into the main town of Santo they were greeted by a "warm, friendly crowd," according to a spokesman for Prime Minister-elect Walter Lini.
The military action put an end to nearly two months of rebel control and five years of agitation for the independence of Espiritu Santo, the larges island of the New Hebrides archipelago. It also cleared the way for independence ceremonies next week for the new Hebrides, whose balmy shores were a base for American GIs in World War II and the setting for the James Michener novel and Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific."
Espiritu Santo was taken over May 28 by French-speaking rebels led by a local Eurasian chief and former bulldozer driver, Jimmy Stevens. It was the last act of a struggle that began in earnest after the French speakers lost last autumn's election to Lini's Anglophones.
Stevens was backed by an assortment of American right-wing visioneries and businessmen who wanted to set up a model liberation society free of government regulation and taxes. He was also supported by local French planters and French-educated natives who feared they would suffer discrimination under the english-speaking central government of Lini.
Since 1906, the British and French have governed the islands with separate legal systems, police forces, schools and other institutions. Visitors have had to declare on arrival whether they wished to be governed by British or French law, with the French system offering wine for its prisoners in jail.
The Port Vila government was "very pleased and grateful" that military action, which it had consistently called for, had at last been taken to restore the authority of the central government, the spokesman for Lini said.
Reports reaching Port Vila about the operation are still incomplete, but one eyewitness said people were pouring onto the streets and the general population was very relieved the action had been taken. "Which is indictative of just how spurious Stevens' claims were," the government spokesman said.
"He's been exercising his dubious authority through fear an intimidation. Well, we [the Lini government] have always known that, but the problem was getting it across to the French and British and the outside world."
The French had been reluctant to put down the rebellion by force, and the 200 men of "Miki" Company, 42 Royal Marine Commandos sent here on June 15, had spent most of their time on Port Vila beaches or drinking beer by the swimming pool of the international Hotel while British and French negotiators sought a peaceful settlement. But despite the hopeful note sounded by a joint communique issued by British and French colonial ministers last weekend, it was clear that Stevens was not going to be talked into backing down.
The hundred French troops of the 8th Parachute Division arrived unnoticed Wednesday night at Bauerfield, the airport outside Port Vila, from the neighboring French colony of New Caledonia. By the time they and the British contingent flew into Espiritu Santo, less than an hour's flight from Vila, the local French community -- 250 planters and their families -- had already been forewarned. French resident commissioner Inspector General Jean-Jacques Robert had proceeded them to Santo to persuade his compatriots supporting Stevens not to resist the landing. Official French policy was to oppose the secession, he told them, and it would be pointless to oppose the troops when they came.
[In Paris, Paul Dijoud, French secretary of state for overseas territories told Agence France-Presse that Stevens had personally ordered the runway to be cleared on Espiritu Santu Santo so that the troops could land].
The ending of the rebellion on Santo paves the way for a smooth transfer of power by Britain and France to Lini, who formed a government after winning two-thirds of the popular vote in last November's elections. But while there is relief in government circles and among the Anglophone population of Port Vila at the sucess of today's operation, some doubts persist about the determination of the two colonial powers to bring the offenders to justice.
It is being pointed out by Lini's supporters that the military action will be confined to Luganville and will not extend to Stevens' camp at nearby Fanafo.
"The government would like to see the early arrest of the ringleaders," the government spokesman said, but the French were responsible for restraining the scope of the operation.
The British and French troops were still in Luganville tonight, and "we don't know how long they will stay there," he said. But after midnight on July 29 their presence would have to be authorized by the government of the new state of Vanuatu, as the New Hebrides islands will be known.