Australia sends police and troops to Honiara as violent protests continue in Solomon Islands

Australia is deploying more than 100 police and defence force personnel to the Solomon Islands amid reports of fresh protests in the capital Honiara.

The Australian government on Thursday said the deployment would support “riot control” and security at critical infrastructure, a day after demonstrators attempted to storm parliament and topple the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare.

Canberra said the move was in response to a request from Sogavare under an existing security agreement between the two countries, and should not be seen as taking a position in the Solomon Islands’ internal affairs.

Sogavare said his government was still in control.

“Today I stand before you to inform you all that our country is safe – your government is in place and continues to lead our nation,” Sogavare said on Thursday, adding that those responsible would “face the full brunt of the law”.

Protesters defied a 36-hour lockdown imposed in the wake of Wednesday’s unrest and again took to the streets on Thursday targeting police and businesses in the capital’s Chinatown area, a Honiara resident told newswire AFP.

The man, who did not want to be named, said police had erected roadblocks but the protests showed no sign of abating more than 24 hours after erupting outside parliament.

“There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” he said, as local media reported looting and police using teargas.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced his government was deploying 73 Australian federal police (AFP) officers and 43 Australian defence force (ADF) personnel in response to a request from the Solomon Islands.

Morrison said it was a time to support “our Pacific family”.

“We have received reports of more buildings burning on the main road in the center of Honiara, including a large commercial building and a bank branch, and increasing numbers of people on the streets,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

The first 23 police officers left Canberra on a Royal Australian Air Force plane on Thursday afternoon.

Morrison said the police officers would “support riot control” while additonal police and the ADF personnel would “support security at critical infrastructure”.

But Morrison said Australian personnel would stay away from the parliament and the executive buildings of the government, as guarding those facilities was a task for the Solomon Islands police force.

“Our purpose here is to provide stability and security to enable the normal constitutional processes within the Solomon Islands to be able to deal with various issues that have arisen and that be done in a climate of peace, stability and security,” Morrison said.

“It is not the Australian government’s intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands – that is for them to resolve. I’ve made that very clear.”

The prime minister expected the deployment would last “a matter of weeks” but Australia would assess the situation regularly.

Morrison said the personnel would be “under the direction of our commanders but obviously there to support the Royal Solomon Islands police force”. “Our deployed personnel will carry both lethal and non-lethal weapons, primarily, but not exclusive for force protection purposes.”

The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said the Australian diplomatic mission in Honiara remained operational and all staff and family members were safe.

“They are supporting the government in the provision of information about events as they unfold,” she said on Thursday.

Witnesses posted images on social media of smoke rising from the capital and said Chinese-owned businesses were being targeted, prompting Beijing’s embassy to express “serious concerns” to the Solomons’ government.

“[The embassy] made representations requesting the Solomon Islands to take all necessary measures to strengthen the protection of Chinese enterprises and personnel,” it said in a statement.

The latest disturbance came after several hundred demonstrators torched buildings, including a police station, and looted stores on Wednesday after marching on parliament to demand Sogavare’s resignation.

Sogavare ordered an immediate curfew across Honiara, set to run until 7am on Friday, describing the unrest as a “sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down”.

Most of the protesters in Honiara are reportedly from the neighbouring island of Malaita.

People on the island have long complained of neglect by central government and strongly opposed the Solomons’ decision to switch diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to China in 2019.

The opposition leader, Matthew Wale, called on Sogavare to step down, saying the unrest would not be quelled by a police-enforced lockdown.

“Regrettably, frustrations and pent up anger of the people against the prime minister are spilling uncontrollably over on to the streets, where opportunists have taken advantage of the already serious and deteriorating situation,” he said in a statement.

“The 36-hour lockdown is yet another reactionary response that is not the solution to the current situation.”

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