A British national and an Australian colleague working for an aid agency to map unexploded bombs from the Second World War have been killed in an explosion in the Solomon Islands.
Stephen “Luke” Atkinson, who was born in Singapore and held a British passport, as well as an Irish and a New Zealand passport, was an employee of non-governmental organisation Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA).
He and Australian citizen Trent Lee were killed in the blast on the island of Guadalcanal, where authorities have been clearing unexploded bombs from the Second World War.
It is with deepest regret we confirm the death of our two dear colleagues Stephen «Luke» Atkinson and Trent Lee after a tragic accident in the Solomon Islands. Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to their families, relatives and staff. https://t.co/zzD7367IQC
— NPA Mine Action and Disarmament (@NPAdisarm) September 20, 2020
The South Pacific nation was a key battleground and its islands, including Guadalcanal, are littered with remnants from land and sea clashes between Allied and Japanese forces.
Investigations into the incident are ongoing, but police said it took place at the organisation’s residence, where officers believe the two men may have been carrying out work to disarm unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Deputy secretary general Per Nergaard called the blast, which occurred in the residential Tasahe area of the nation’s capital Honiara on Sunday evening, a “tragic accident”.
“So far, we know that there has been an explosion with fatal consequences,” a statement on the organisation’s website said.
“Our main priority now is to offer assistance to relatives and colleagues, and to clarify what has happened.”
Secretary general Henriette Killi Westhrin said the agency was “devastated” by the deaths of the two men.
The organisation is assisting local authorities in the Solomon Islands to develop a centralised database mapping UXO dating back to the Second World War.
Authorities have been clearing remnants ahead of the 2023 Pacific Games, which the Solomon Islands is hosting.
Activities by the agency have temporarily been put on hold, Mr Nergaard added, while the agency works with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF).
Inspector Clifford Tunuki, the officer in charge of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), raised concerns that unexploded ordnance had been moved to the residential area.
RSIPF assures residents in the area of the fatal bomb blast that they are safeThe Royal Solomon Islands Police Force…
While the cause is not yet known by police, Insp Tunuki said preliminary investigations indicated there were “several items of UXO at the residence and they may have been conducting some UXO work”.
“The RSIPF EOD had a good working relationship with the NPA project and so we are concerned that they decided to conduct EOD operations within a residential area,” he said in a statement.
“RSIPF did not know these items had been moved to the NPA residence. If we had known, we would have requested that the items be moved to a safe location such as Hell’s Point east of Honiara.”
He added that other unexploded ordnance discovered at the agency’s residence had been moved to Hell’s Point while investigators carry out their work.