April 18, 2006

Australian troops on stand-by to head to Solomons

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia said on Wednesday it was
poised to send troops to the Solomon Islands after rioting and
looting through the night following the election of a new prime
minister in the South Pacific nation.

Rioters set fire to shops in Chinatown, razing many
buildings in protest at the election of Snyder Rini on Tuesday,
claiming his new government would be heavily influenced by
local Chinese businessmen and the Taiwan government.

"During the night there has been a continuation of
lawlessness in Honiara," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "There's a
very good chance that on the basis of the advice we have from
Honiara that some troops will be sent there."

The Solomons, a chain of 992 islands covering 1.35 million
sq km (520,000 sq miles) of ocean, teetered on the brink of
collapse in 2003 when armed gangs fought over Honiara.

Australia led a multinational force into the Solomons to
restore peace in what was the biggest military deployment in
the South Pacific since World War Two.

"We are absolutely determined that the Solomon Islands will
be a stable democratic country and that can only happen if we
go the distance," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told
Australian radio.

Downer said 17 Australian police had been injured in
overnight clashes. Some 280 Australian police are in the
Solomons as part of a peacekeeping operation.


Rini, deputy prime minister in the previous government, won
a secret parliamentary ballot but was trapped in parliament for
most of the day with many members of his new government over
fears for their safety.

"The protesters were shouting yesterday that this was a
Chinese government because the president of the party that
Snyder Rini belongs to is a naturalized Chinese ... so they
were saying this is a Chinese-backed government," government
spokesman Johnson Honimae told Reuters.

"Some Solomon Islanders have been resentful of the Chinese.
(The Chinese) were taking up all the businesses in town and all
the staff and prices were increasing unreasonably. It's
something that people have been holding within them," he said.

The Solomon Islands has diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

"Some people decided to take to the streets, particularly
focusing on the Chinese people because they believe Synder Rini
has been supported by the Chinese, not just ethnic Chinese in
the Solomon Islands, but by the Taiwanese as well," Downer

China and Taiwan have long battled for diplomatic
recognition from South Pacific nations, eager for their support
in international forums.

In early April the troubled Solomons, with a population of
about half a million, held its first election since
peacekeepers restored order three years ago. About half the
members of the previous parliament were ousted by voters fed up
with corruption and demanding a new government.

Honimae said Rini had been moved to a safe location and it
was not yet known whether Rini's swearing-in would happen on
Wednesday as planned.

"Chinatown is basically burned down, there are only a
couple of shops left standing. Right up to this morning looting
is still continuing," said Honimae, adding he did not believe
the protests against Rini reflected widespread discontent.