Australian peacekeepers sent to riot-hit Solomon Islands

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Australian peacekeepers were deployed Friday to secure the airport and port of the riot-torn Solomon Islands capital Honiara as young men rummaged for goods in smouldering buildings across the Chinatown district.

In the morning hours, smoke wafted through the streets from fire-gutted buildings, a scene of devastation after anti-government protesters swarmed the capital for two days, some torching and looting.

The vanguard of Australia’s snap peacekeeping deployment arrived overnight in the Pacific island nation, less than a day after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare appealed for help quelling the violent unrest that threatened to topple his government.

After making the request, Sogavare said the Solomons had been “brought to its knees” by the rioting.

The unrest has been sparked by pandemic-fueled economic frustrations and a long-running rivalry between residents of the country’s most populous island, Malaita, and the central government based on the island of Guadalcanal.

Canberra’s Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the Australian mission, comprised of about 100 police and military personnel, was intended to restore law and order.

“Twenty-three Australian Federal Police were deployed immediately yesterday, they are already on the ground in Honiara, more will be deployed today, about another 50,” she told Sky News.

“The situation is very volatile there. At the moment we know that the rioting has escalated over the last couple of days,” she said, adding that the troops would secure critical infrastructure including the airport and ports.

The archipelago nation of around 700,000 people has for decades been beset by ethnic and political tensions.

The latest bout of unrest began on Wednesday when thousands of protesters besieged parliament, setting fire to an outbuilding and seeking to oust Sogavare, who has refused to resign.

Australian Federal Police Special Operations personnel prepare equipment prior to their departure from Canberra to the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara on Thursday. | AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE / VIA AFP-JIJI

Since then, the demonstrations have descended into a violent free-for-all, with gangs of stick-wielding youths rampaging through the capital, stripping stores of goods and clashing with police.

“There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” one resident said, asking not to be named.

By late Thursday thousands of looters openly defied police lockdown orders, running through the streets carrying boxes, crates and bulging sacks of goods as flames crackled around them and plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city.

Images published on social media showed buildings engulfed in flames, shopfronts smouldering and corrugated roofs twisted and collapsed in the capital.

Debris, including trash and tree branches, was strewn across the streets, with banks, schools, police stations and Chinese-owned businesses among the buildings reportedly torched.

Footage showed crowds rummaging through the still-smoking hulks of buildings looking for anything of value.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian expressed “grave concern” and called on the Solomon Islands government “to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens and organizations”.

In the late 1990s Guadalcanal militants launched attacks on settlers, particularly targeting those from Malaita, and for five years unrest plagued the country.

The so-called “Tensions” only eased with the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping mission — named the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

Andrews said the latest Australian deployment was expected to last “a matter of weeks”, unlike Canberra’s previous peacekeeping mission, which ran from 2003 to 2017 and cost about U.S.$2.2 billion.

“Our primary goal is to restore law and public order, it is certainly not to intervene in any of the political matters that are happening at the moment,” she said.

Malaita residents continue to complain that their island is neglected by the central government.

Since 2019 the feud has been turbocharged by a row over Sogavare’s decision to abruptly break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize Beijing.

Malaita authorities opposed the move and defiantly maintained contact with the Taiwan authorities. As a result the province continues to receive outsized aid from Taipei and Washington.

The province’s premier Daniel Suidani has accused Sogavare of being in Beijing’s pocket, alleging he had “elevated the interest of foreigners above those of Solomon Islanders.”

“People are not blind to this and do not want to be cheated anymore,” he said.

Experts say geopolitical rivalry is now fueling the crisis.

“Political competition doesn’t trigger a riot in Honiara,” said Mihai Sora, an expert on the Pacific at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

“But the actions of these great powers — while they curry favor with individual political actors — have a destabilizing effect on what is already a fragile and vulnerable country.

“Then of course the contemporary context is one of extended economic hardship due to COVID restrictions, a COVID state of emergency.

“The health and economic impacts of COVID have only added to the pressures that any developing country was facing before the pandemic hit.”

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