27 Nov 2021, 08:51

Calm returns to Solomons capital after deadly riots

  HONIARA, Nov 27, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - A tense calm returned to the Solomon
Islands' capital Honiara Saturday, after days of rioting left at least three
dead and reduced swathes of the city to smouldering ruins.

  A handful of petrol stations, shops and other businesses gingerly began to
reopen, with Honiara residents flocking to buy basic provisions as the
violent unrest ebbed.

  "The situation is very tense and anything could happen anytime," said
Audrey Awao, a working mother who worried there would soon be no food left in
the shops.

  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.

  "Now PM need to step down" A self-employed 32-year-old who gave his name as
Selson told AFP. "That's the demand for all citizens of the Solomon Islands."

  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

  A night-time curfew and the presence of roughly 150 foreign peacekeepers
from Australia and Papua New Guinea appeared to cool tensions.

  The scale of the recovery is now coming into sharp focus, even as the city
remains on edge.

  "It is very frustrating as it took me more than three hours to reach the
fuel pump to get my vehicle fueled," Awao told AFP.

  - Hungry mobs -

  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

  Anger was channelled 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 now 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

  Police have moved to stamp out the violence, declaring a night-time curfew
in Honiara.

  Mobs had ignored an earlier 36-hour lockdown, with thousands of people --
some brandishing axes and knives -- roaming through the city's Chinatown,
Point Cruz and business districts, according to AFP correspondents on the

  After days of mayhem, large areas of the capital have been left with the
scorched-black shells of buildings, while streets are still littered with

  "We are living in fear," resident Josephine Teakeni told AFP.

  "At the moment it is very hard... children will be missing out from
schools, lots of mothers will be jobless."

  - 'Brought to its knees' -

  As tensions escalated, Sogavare had begged neighbours 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

  The pro-Beijing leader claimed foreign powers opposed to his 2019 decision
to switch the Solomons' diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China were
behind the disturbances.

  But others pointed to inter-island tensions and widespread joblessness
among the country's population -- 40 percent of whom are under 14 years of

  The archipelago nation has for decades endured ethnic and political

  Residents of the populous Malaita province have long complained that their
island is neglected by the central government, and divisions intensified when
Sogavare recognised Beijing.

  China's government on Friday condemned the violence and vowed to "safeguard
the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens and


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