HONIARA, Solomon Islands (AFP) — Calm returned to the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara Saturday after days of rioting left at least three dead and reduced sections of the city to smoldering ruins.
Petrol stations, shops, and other businesses began to reopen, with Honiara residents flocking to buy basic provisions as the violence ebbed.
What began as a small protest on Wednesday quickly descended into a violent free-for-all, with poor Honiara residents joining anti-government protesters to rampage through the shattered glass and burnt-out remains of businesses for things to eat or sell.
For three straight days, angry mobs cut through the usually sleepy seaside capital, demanding the removal of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
Two years of pandemic-induced closed borders have left the already ravaged Solomons economy in tatters, deepening widespread joblessness and poverty among the population of around 800,000.
Local police said a forensic team was working to identify the charred remains of three bodies found in a shop in the city’s burnt-out Chinatown district.
Heavily armed police were a visible presence on nearby streets as locals began clean-up operations and limited bus services resumed.
A night-time curfew and the presence of roughly 150 foreign peacekeepers from Australia and Papua New Guinea appeared to have helped cool tensions.
But the scale of the recovery was coming into sharp focus, even as the city remained on edge.
Many Solomon Islanders believe their government is corrupt and beholden to Beijing and other foreign interests.
“Most people are barely getting one meal a day, there are no tourists and very little economic stimulus,” Douglas Kelson, chief officer at St. John Ambulance Service, told AFP.
“People do things they normally wouldn’t when they are hungry,” Kelson said.
Anger was channeled directly at Sogavare and his government, with mobs attempting to torch parliament and the prime minister’s private residence as police fired tear gas and warning shots.
Over 100 people have been arrested for riot-related activity, Solomon Islands police said Saturday as they tried to restore order.
“No one is above the law,” said commissioner Mostyn Mangau, urging residents to “respect each other, as well as our visiting friends from abroad”.
As tensions escalated, Sogavare had begged neighbors for urgent help.
In a letter obtained by AFP, the prime minister told his Papua New Guinea counterpart James Marape that “certain elements” had “attempted to overthrow a democratically elected government” and called for peacekeepers to be sent for a “period of three to four weeks”.
In an address to the nation, Sogavare told citizens the Solomons had been “brought to its knees” by the rioting but vowed to resist calls for his resignation.
But the political situation remained fraught. Opposition leaders on Saturday called for a vote of no confidence in Sogavare’s leadership.