HONIARA: Australian peacekeepers deployed on Friday (Nov 26) 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 Solomons 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-fuelled 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.
‘MOBS MOVING AROUND’
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.
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 told AFP, 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.