Australia sends troops to Solomon Islands as unrest grows

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David Rising and Rod Mcguirk, Associated Press

Published Thursday 25 November 2021 06:33 EST

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia announced on Thursday that it was sending police, troops and diplomats to Solomon Islands to help after anti-government protesters defied lockdown orders and took to the streets for a second day of violent protests.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the deployment includes a department with 23 federal police officers and up to 50 more to provide security at critical infrastructure sites, as well as 43 defense forces, a patrol boat and at least five diplomats.

The first staff left Australia on Thursday with more going on on Friday, and the deployment was expected to last for a few weeks, Morrison said.

“Our purpose here is to provide stability and security,” he said.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a deadlock on Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered in protest in the capital Honiara and demanded his resignation due to a number of domestic issues.

The protesters broke into the national parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set fire to a police station and other buildings.

“They were intent on destroying our nation and … the trust that was slowly building up among our people,” the government said in a statement.

Morrison said Sogavare was seeking help from Australia in the midst of the violence under a bilateral security agreement.

“It is not the intention of the Australian Government to intervene in any way in the Solomon Islands’ internal affairs. It is up to them to resolve,” he said.

“Our presence there does not indicate a position on the internal issues of the Solomon Islands,” Morrison added.

Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, which restored peace in the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 to 2017.

Sogavare ordered that the capital be closed from kl. 19:00 Wednesday to Friday at 19:00 after saying that he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event that aimed to overthrow a democratically elected government.”

“I had honestly thought we had passed the darkest days in our country’s history,” he said. “Today’s events, however, are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go.”

Despite an announcement from the Solomon Islands police force that they would carry out increased patrols through Honiara in the middle of the lockdown, protesters took to the streets again on Thursday.

Local journalist Gina Kekea posted pictures on Twitter of a bank, shops and a school in flames.

Morrison said he decided to send help after it became clear that the Solomon Islands police were “outstretched”.

Sogavare made many angry in 2019, especially the leaders of Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he cut off the country’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan and exchanged his diplomatic loyalty to China instead.

Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita, whose prime minister Daniel Suidani has disagreed with Sogavare, whom he accuses of being too close to Beijing.

China expressed serious concern about attacks on certain Chinese citizens and institutions, without giving details.

“We believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Sogavare, the Solomon Islands Government can restore social order and stability as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing in Beijing.

He said that economic and other cooperation since the establishment of diplomatic relations had benefited both sides. “Any attempt to undermine the normal development of relations between China and Solomon is meaningless,” he said.

Suidani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, but told Solomon Star News that he agreed to the calls for Sogavare to resign.

“For the past 20 years, Mannaseh Sogavare has been in power, the difficult situation of the people of Solomon has worsened while foreigners have reaped the best of the country’s resources,” Suidani said. “People are not blind to this and do not want to be deceived anymore.”

Honiara journalist Elizabeth Osifelo said the cause of the chaos was a “mixture of a lot of frustration.”

“The switch to China from Taiwan, that was it too, I could say some of it,” Osefelo told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “It’s probably not what triggered the situation, but it has also largely contributed to some of the tension we’ve experienced.”

—— Rising reported from Bangkok.

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