HONIARA (AFP) – Australia rushed peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands yesterday hoping to quell riots that threatened to topple the Pacific nation’s government and left its capital ablaze.
After a second day of violent protests that saw widespread rioting, looting and several buildings set alight, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison authorised the snap deployment of a 100-strong police and military force.
Thousands of protesters in the capital Honiara have defied a government lockdown order and taken to the streets to demand the removal of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
The tensions have been sparked by pandemic-fuelled economic frustrations and a long-running rivalry between residents of the country’s most populous island Malaita and the Guadalcanal-based central government.
Yesterday several buildings around Honiara’s Chinatown district were set alight, including commercial properties and a bank branch.
The Chinese government expressed “grave concern” that Chinese-owned businesses appeared to be the target of several of the attacks.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on the Solomon Islands government “to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens and organisations”.
Chinese-owned businesses are a frequent target for violence across Melanesia.
The unrest began on Wednesday when demonstrators attempted to storm parliament to depose Sogavare and ransacked local police stations, making clear the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force was overwhelmed.
“There’re mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” one resident told AFP, asking not to be named.
Sogavare had initially insisted his government was in total control, that the “country is safe” and that rioters would “face the full brunt of the law”.
But within hours blazes raged across Honiara, plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city and Sogavare had asked Australia to send in troops.
Morrison said the Australian deployment was immediate and expected to last “a matter of weeks”, unlike Canberra’s last peacekeeping mission to the Solomons, which ran from 2003 to 2017.
“It is not the Australian government’s intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands, that is for them to resolve,” he said. “Our purpose here is to provide stability and security.”
The Solomon Islands has struggled repeatedly with ethnic tensions and political violence since gaining independence from Britain in 1978.