Australian peacekeepers sent to riot-stricken Solomon Islands

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Australian peacekeepers were deployed on Friday to secure the airport and port in riot-torn Solomon Islands capital Honiara, as young men searched goods in steaming buildings across the Chinatown neighborhood.

In the morning, smoke spread through the streets from buildings ravaged by fire, a scene of devastation after anti-government protesters invaded the capital for two days, some torched and looted.

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

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

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

Canberra Home Secretary Karen Andrews said the Australian mission, made up of around 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, around 50 more,” she told Sky News.

“The situation is very volatile there. At the moment, we know that the riots have intensified over the past two days, ”she said, adding that the troops would secure critical infrastructure, including the airport and ports.

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

The latest episode of unrest began on Wednesday when thousands of protesters besieged parliament, torching an outhouse and seeking to oust Sogavare, who refused to resign.

Australian Federal Police special operations staff prepare equipment before leaving Canberra for the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on Thursday. | AUSTRALIAN DEFENSE FORCE / VIA UKTN-JIJI

Since then, the protests have escalated into a violent all-out, with gangs of young people armed with sticks rampaging through the capital, stripping stores of merchandise and clashing with police.

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

Thousands of looters openly defied police lockdown orders on Thursday evening, running through the streets with bulging boxes, crates and bags of goods as flames crackled around them and plumes of black smoke thick rose above the city.

Images posted on social media showed buildings engulfed in flames, smoldering storefronts and twisted and collapsed wavy roofs in the capital.

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

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The footage showed crowds rummaging through the still smoking carcasses of buildings in search of something 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, militants from Guadalcanal launched attacks on settlers, targeting in particular those in Malaita, and for five years unrest ravaged the country.

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

Andrews said the latest Australian deployment is expected to last “a few weeks,” unlike Canberra’s previous peacekeeping mission, which ran from 2003 to 2017 and cost around $ 2.2 billion.

“Our main objective is to restore law and order, it is certainly not to interfere in the political affairs that are going on at the moment,” she said.

The people of Malaita continue to complain that their island is neglected by the central government.

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

Authorities in Malaita opposed this decision and maintained suspicious contact with authorities in Taiwan. As a result, the province continues to receive inordinate aid from Taipei and Washington.

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The premier of the province, Daniel Suidani, accused Sogavare of being in Beijing’s pocket, saying he had “elevated the interest of foreigners above that of the Solomon Islands”.

“People are not blind to this and no longer want to be cheated,” he said.

Experts say geopolitical rivalry is now fueling the crisis.

“Political competition does not start a riot in Honiara,” said Mihai Sora, Pacific expert at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

“But the actions of these great powers – as 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 prolonged economic hardship due to COVID restrictions, a COVID state of emergency.

“The health and economic impacts of COVID only added to the pressures any developing country faced before the pandemic struck. “

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