Police fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse rioters who attacked the home of the Solomon Islands prime minister on Friday, in a third day of political violence that prompted the rapid deployment of international peacekeepers.
As Australian police and soldiers fanned out to secure the port, airport and other critical infrastructure, mobs once again set buildings ablaze and looted smoking rubble from shops in Honiara, the coastal capital of Solomons Island, which is usually numb.
Thousands of people, some brandishing axes and knives, razed the city’s Chinatown, Point Cruz and business districts, according to AFP correspondents at the scene.
“We live in fear,” resident Josephine Teakeni told AFP.
“At this time it is very difficult … children will be lost from schools, many mothers will be without work.”
The explosion of violence is due in part to frustrations in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government and chronic unemployment exacerbated by the pandemic.
Also fueling the unrest is long-standing animosity between residents of the country’s most populous island, Malaita, and the Guadalcanal-based central government.
Crowds expressed anger on Friday by setting fire to at least one building near Sogavare’s home, before police fired warning shots to drive the crowd back into the center of Honiara, AFP reporters witnessed.
In Chinatown, a large warehouse caught fire, setting off an explosion that sent dozens of people fleeing in panic.
A tobacco warehouse also caught fire as smoke from the fires of earlier days threw parts of the devastated city of 80,000 people into acrid haze.
The overrunned Solomon Islands Police Force said on Friday they had made only two arrests, despite two police stations being among the many buildings set on fire.
The approximately 100 Australian peacekeepers arrived overnight, just hours after Sogavare called out for urgent help from neighbors.
In a letter obtained by AFP, Sogavare 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 dispatched for a “period of three to four weeks “.
Papua New Guinea agreed to dispatch 34 peacekeepers to help stop the violence.
In an address to the nation on Thursday, Sogavare told citizens that the Solomon Islands had been “brought to its knees” by the unrest, but vowed to resist calls for his resignation.
The pro-Beijing leader claimed that foreign powers opposing his 2019 decision to shift the Solomon Islands’ diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China were behind the unrest.
“Unfortunately it is influenced and encouraged by other powers … I do not want to name names, we will leave it there, we know who they are,” he told Australia’s public broadcaster, without naming the powers or providing evidence.
The unrest began on Wednesday when thousands of protesters besieged parliament, set fire to a dependency and tried to overthrow Sogavare.
It then descended into a violent wrestling for all, when crowds of young people with sticks ignored the curfew and razed the capital, stripping stores of goods and clashing with the police.
Late on Thursday, thousands of looters openly defied police lockdown orders, running through the streets carrying bulging boxes, crates and sacks of goods as flames crackled around them and plumes of thick black smoke rose above the city. .
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian expressed “grave concern” and called on the Solomon Islands government to protect Chinese citizens.
The archipelago nation of around 700,000 has endured ethnic and political tensions for decades.
In the late 1990s, militants from Guadalcanal launched attacks against settlers, particularly those from Malaita, and for five years unrest ravaged the country.
The so-called “tensions” were only eased with the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping mission that ran between 2003 and 2017.
The Australian government said its latest deployment was only expected to last “a matter of weeks.”
Malaita residents have long complained that the central government neglects their island, and divisions intensified when Sogavare recognized Beijing.
The Malaita authorities opposed the measure and maintained contact with the Taiwanese authorities. The province continues to receive enormous aid from Taipei and Washington.
The province’s prime minister, Daniel Suidani, accused Sogavare of being in Beijing’s pocket, claiming that he had “raised the interest of foreigners above that of Solomon Islanders.”
“People are not blind to this and they don’t want to be fooled anymore,” he said.
Experts say the geopolitical rivalry did not trigger the crisis directly, but it contributed.
“The actions of these great powers, while winning the favor of individual political actors, have a destabilizing effect on what is already a fragile and vulnerable country,” Mihai Sora, an expert on the Pacific at the Lowy Institute of Australia.
“So, of course, the contemporary context is one of prolonged economic hardship due to Covid restrictions, a Covid state of emergency.”