April 22, 2006

Solomons faces life or death: Australia

By Michelle Nichols

HONIARA (Reuters) - Australia, helping to keep the peace in
the Solomon Islands after two days of violent protests in the
capital, said on Saturday the need for economic reform was a
matter of life or death for the South Pacific country.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, during a
brief visit to the still smouldering Honiara, also said
corruption must be wiped out, but that there was a limit to
what peacekeepers could do.

"Continuing with economic reform is a life or death issue
for the Solomon Islands," Downer told reporters after meeting
new Prime Minister Snyder Rini, seeking to calm fears about
foreign influence.

"In the end, the future of this country is in the hands of
the government and the people of the Solomon Islands. They
ultimately have to chart their own destiny and be responsible
-- we can only help."

Tuesday's election of Rini, who had been the deputy prime
minister, sparked two days of rioting and looting in Honiara,
where a curfew has been imposed and Australian troops are now
patrolling the streets to ward off further trouble.

Dozens of buildings still smoulder in Honiara and derelict
shops are daubed with obscene graffiti directed at Rini and an
Australian-led police operation, but the central market was
again bustling on Saturday as a sense of normality returned.

The military will lock down the Solomons parliament on
Monday when MPs meet for the first time since an election
earlier this month, the first poll since Australian-led
peacekeepers restored law and order in 2003 after violent
ethnic unrest.

Opposition parties have already moved a no confidence
motion against Rini, which is due to go to a vote on Wednesday,
with both sides claiming they have the numbers to be

Former prime minister and leader of the opposition Liberal
Party, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, who was ousted from power during
a coup in 2000, described the government as a repressive regime
that was only paying lip service to economic reform.

"Continuation of the same regime would be like a time
bomb," Ulufa'alu told Reuters. "What happened in Honiara is a
reflection of what the nation as a whole wants -- the people
want change."


Hundreds of Chinese targeted in the violence and forced
from their homes, many which burned to the ground, were being
sheltered inside Honiara's police headquarters by the Red
Cross. Beijing has requested the Solomons protect its

Honiara's small Chinese community was targeted after claims
were made that Rini's government is corrupt and heavily
influenced by local Chinese businessmen and Taiwan, which the
Solomons recognizes diplomatically. Rini has denied the claims.

Solomons voters ousted half their parliament, but it wasn't
enough to unseat the government, with Rini elevated to the top
job and on Friday naming 11 members of the previous government
-- including nine former ministers -- in his 21 member cabinet.

However, he immediately suffered a setback with one of his
chosen ministers -- a new MP -- declining the role and
defecting, along with another government politician, to the

Unlike the last election in 2001, marred by armed gangs and
reports of vote rigging, observers said the 2006 poll was free
and fair. Corruption was the key issue after several ministers
were arrested on graft charges in the past year.

"I made the point (to Rini) that it's very important that
the political class builds the confidence of the people that
... there is a high level of accountability and transparency in
order to ensure corruption doesn't continue," Downer said.

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 then led a South Pacific force to restore order,
warning that failed states could become terrorist havens.

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.