April 24, 2006

Solomons parliament sworn, PM says security returns

By Michelle Nichols

HONIARA (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands parliament was
sworn in on Monday under heavy security, as foreign
peacekeepers arrested another opposition politician after
violent protests against the election of Prime Minister Snyder

Hundreds of foreign peacekeepers and police cordoned off
the building for the swearing-in ceremony as a helicopter
hovered overhead, amid fears of further violent protests
against Rini.

Opposition MP Patteson Oti said the lockdown was too heavy

"It portrays a negative image of a parliament under siege
... and of a parliament ruled by the military -- that is not
the case," Oti told reporters allowed into parliament.

After the swearing-in, Rini was driven away by peacekeepers
in flak jackets. Rini has been under police protection in an
undisclosed location since his election last Tuesday.

Rini later told a news conference that life was returning
to normal in the looted and burned capital Honiara, with public
transport, banks, schools and markets re-opening.

"Law and order has returned to Honiara. I see most services
have reopened, maybe at a reduced scale, but at least they are
open," said Rini.

"This only shows to my government that the majority of
people in this country want to continue on with life, accepting
the decision to elect my government into power. It is only the
few minority that wants to spoil things for all of us."

More than 1,500 protesters gathered at parliament last
Tuesday when Rini was elected leader in the secret
parliamentary ballot, throwing rocks at police.

The protest spiralled into widespread looting, targeting
the city's tiny Chinese business population in the small
capital of Honiara, which has only a few roads running through

The rioting was fueled by rumors that aid money from Taiwan
was used to help elect Rini and that his government is heavily
influenced by local Chinese businessmen.

The city's Chinatown was destroyed, with buildings burned
to the ground. Hundreds of Chinese have taken shelter with the
Red Cross and hundreds more have fled the country.

A second night of looting in Honiara, population 50,000,
followed before the arrival of troops from Australia and New
Zealand and a dusk-to-dawn curfew quelled the violence.

Police arrested an opposition politician on Sunday night
and charged him in relation to Tuesday's riots. Another
opposition MP was arrested on Monday after he was sworn in at
the parliament.

The adjournment of parliament after the swearing-in until
Tuesday and the opposition arrests have put in doubt a vote of
no confidence planned by the opposition for possibly Wednesday.

The 50-seat parliament is evenly divided with 25 MPs each
for the government and opposition.

Solomons voters ousted half their parliament in a national
election in early April, but it wasn't enough to unseat the
government, with Rini being elevated to the top job and naming
11 members of the previous government in his 21-member cabinet.

Political corruption was the major election issue.

An Australian-led peacekeeping force which landed in the
Solomons in 2003 to stop ethnic fighting has been reinforced
following the latest unrest, bringing the number to almost 900.

Australia has repeatedly said it is determined not to let
the Solomons, a chain of 992 South Pacific islands covering
1.35 million sq km (520,000 sq miles) of ocean, become a failed
state and possible terrorist haven.