HONIARA, Solomon Islands (AFP) — Australia rushed police and military peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands Thursday to quell two days of rioting that left the capital ablaze and threatened to topple the Pacific nation’s government.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison authorized the snap deployment at the request of his Solomons counterpart Manasseh Sogavare, who protesters have demanded to step down from office.
On Thursday thousands ignored a government lockdown order, torching several buildings around Honiara’s Chinatown district including commercial properties and a bank branch.
By sunset, blazes dotted the Honiara skyline and plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city.
It followed widespread chaos in Honiara on Wednesday, when demonstrators attempted to storm parliament and depose Sogavare, a pro-Beijing leader who has become the focus of inter-island rivalry.
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.
Honiara’s latest spate of civil unrest has resulted in businesses operated by the capital’s Chinese community being looted and burned, prompting Beijing’s embassy to express “serious concerns” to the Solomons’ government.
“(The embassy) made representations requesting the Solomon Islands to take all necessary measures to strengthen the protection of Chinese enterprises and personnel,” it said in a statement.
Sogavare insisted his government still controlled the nation of 660,000, which lies 2,000 kilometers northeast of Australia.
“Today I stand before you to inform you all that our country is safe — your government is in place and continues to lead our nation,” he said, adding that those responsible “will face the full brunt of the law.”
After failing to break into parliament on Wednesday, the rioters regrouped a day later and ransacking a police station, a local resident told AFP.
The man, who did not want to be named, said police erected roadblocks but the unrest showed no sign of abating.
“There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” the resident said, as local media reported looting and police using tear gas.
Most of the protesters in Honiara are reportedly from the neighbouring island of Malaita, where people have long complained of neglect by the central government.
The island’s local government also strongly opposed the Solomons’ decision to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019 — a move engineered by Sogavare, who critics say is too close to Beijing.