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Nervous residents clean streets in riot-hit Solomon Islands capital

Nervous residents in the charred, riot-hit capital of the Solomon Islands cleared shattered glass, rubble and trash.

Nervous residents clean streets in riot-hit Solomon Islands capital
People clear debris from the streets as calm returned to the Solomon Islands' capital Honiara after days of rioting - Copyright AFP Charley PIRINGI
People clear debris from the streets as calm returned to the Solomon Islands' capital Honiara after days of rioting - Copyright AFP Charley PIRINGI
Mavis Podokolo, Charley Piringi

Nervous residents in the charred, riot-hit capital of the Solomon Islands cleared shattered glass, rubble and trash from the streets Sunday as foreign peacekeepers deployed to restore calm.

On one street corner in Chinatown — the epicentre of a three-day bout of torching and looting buildings — students from a technical institute used rakes and spades to clean the road, said AFP correspondents on the scene in Honiara.

Mounds of trash still lined the surrounding streets, a reminder of the explosion of violence blamed partly on poverty, hunger and frustration with the policies of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

An indefinite night-time curfew and the presence of roughly 150 foreign peacekeepers from Australia and Papua New Guinea, as well as local police, appeared to have contributed to quelling the unrest.

“The situation has calmed down and people are moving about as normal but the environment is still unknown in terms of what may happen,” Red Cross official Kennedy Waitara told AFP.

Waitara said many of the food shops had been burned down in the riots.

“It will not be surprising if we have to experience food shortages and a hike in prices,” he said.

“Unemployment will certainly increase in the coming weeks as people will certainly be out of jobs now and will be finding it difficult.”

– Prices rising –

The Red Cross official said he had already seen some shops lifting prices for rice and other goods. People were also starting to queue for gasoline.

Many people were too nervous even to attend Sunday church services in the deeply Christian, Pacific island nation of 800,000 people, said Nason Ta’ake, a youth leader at the Wesley United Church in Honiara.

“There are only a few people attending church services as most are still living in fear,” Ta’ake said.

After leaving church, parishioners began scouring shops for food and essential goods but very few were open, he said.

Two years of pandemic-induced closed borders have left the already ravaged Solomons economy in tatters, deepening widespread joblessness and poverty.

An early estimate of the cost, released this weekend by the Central Bank of the Solomon Islands, said 56 buildings in the capital had been burned and looted, with many businesses facing over a year-long recovery.

The loss to the economy was expected to be at least $28 million, with the bank’s governor warning that the nation’s accounts — already struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic — had been further weakened by the riots.

– ‘Very unstable’ –

Local police said this weekend that a forensic team was working to identify the charred remains of three bodies found in a shop in the city’s burnt-out Chinatown district. The Red Cross official reported few other serious injuries.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Sunday he was being regularly briefed about the deployment of peacekeepers in the Solomon Islands, adding that he expected Fiji to also contribute troops.

“Although things are very unstable, at this point there are no areas to our knowledge where there has been loss of control,” Morrison told reporters.

The Australian leader said it was up to the Solomon Islands to resolve the crisis.

“It is not for us to be interfering in their democracy. It is not for us to be interfering in how they resolve those issues,” Morrison said, adding that Australian forces aimed only to provide a safe environment for this to happen.

Many Solomon Islanders believe their government is corrupt and beholden to Beijing and other foreign interests.

Protesters have channelled their anger 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 been arrested for riot-related activity, the Solomon Islands police said Saturday as they tried to restore order.

– Urgent help –

As tensions escalated, the Solomon Islands prime minister had begged neighbours for urgent help. In a letter to Papua New Guinea counterpart James Marape seen by AFP, he called for peacekeepers to be sent for a “period of three to four weeks”.

Sogavare has vowed to resist calls for his resignation but opposition leaders on Saturday called for a vote of no confidence in his leadership.

They may not yet have enough votes to pass the motion and remove him from office, but the move could produce another flashpoint.

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 age.

China’s government on Friday condemned the violence and vowed to “safeguard the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions”.

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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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