April 21, 2006

Solomon Islands PM says riots won’t force him out

By Michelle Nichols

HONIARA (Reuters) - Solomon Islands Prime Minister Snyder
Rini vowed on Friday to survive current political unrest and,
as foreign troops patrolled a smoldering capital, called on
investors to help rebuild his troubled South Pacific nation.

Calm returned to the streets of Honiara after two days of
violence sparked by Rini's election, but peacekeepers prepared
for fresh outbreaks of rioting after Rini made his first public
appearance since being secretly sworn in on Thursday.

"I was elected through a democratic process," said Rini at
a news conference in the capital of the Solomons, a chain of
992 islands, many uninhabited.

"My government welcomes any moves to unseat me through the
same democratic and parliamentary process," said Rini, who has
been in a secret location under Australian police protection.

Dozens of blackened buildings were still smoldering in
Honiara, their tin roofs warped and collapsed. Damaged shops
were abandoned, with refuse left by looters and obscene
graffiti directed at Rini and Australian-led police operation.

Hundreds of Chinese targeted in the violence and forced
from their homes, many of which burned to the ground, were
sheltering inside Honiara's police headquarters.

"It's very horrible," said 27-year-old Winnie Mae, whose
shop was burned down. "All my family came here so we would be
safe. More than half of the people here want to go back to
China, they are scared this will keep happening."

Beijing has urged the Solomons to protect its nationals and
warned Chinese tourists not to visit the troubled nation.

Rini denied allegations that his government was corrupt or
heavily influenced by local Chinese businessmen and the Taiwan
government, which the Solomons recognizes diplomatically.

"I want to assure you that my government will do its utmost
best to help out, give our meager resources to assist those
that have been affected," Rini told reporters in a dilapidated
cabinet room. More than 70 people have been arrested.


Solomons voters ousted half their parliament in an election
in early April, the first poll since Australian-led
peacekeepers restored law and order in 2003 after violent
ethnic unrest.

But it wasn't enough to unseat the government. Former
deputy prime minister Rini took over the top job and on Friday
named 11 members of the previous government -- including nine
former ministers -- to his 21-member cabinet.

Unlike the previous election in 2001, marred by armed gangs
and reports of vote rigging, poll observers said this month's
vote was free and fair. Corruption was the main issue after
several ministers were charged with graft in the past year.

Rini said he was confident he had the numbers to defeat a
motion of no confidence moved against him and expected to be
voted on next Wednesday.

He said the riots did not reflect wider public opinion.

"What is happening here (in Honiara) is not happening in
the provinces. Only about 10 percent of the population in the
Solomon Islands is in Honiara," Rini said.

Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea have all
committed more troops and police to the Solomons since the
latest unrest, bring the foreign peacekeeping force to more
than 640.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he was
determined to prevent small island nations in the region like
the Solomons becoming failed states and possible havens for

"The situation is still tense and there's still the
potential for further trouble," Howard told Australian radio.

He said more needed to be done to end corruption in
Melanesian nations such as the Solomons. "Corruption is an
endemic problem in Melanesia. We've made some progress, but
there is a long way to go," Howard said.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is to visit
the Solomons on Saturday and hold talks with Rini.

The Solomons is an impoverished country where most of the
half-million population lead subsistence lives.

"To both local and overseas investors, my government would
like to appeal to you to stay in our country," Rini said. "Do
not abandon us. Our people need you."