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Security to be high for Solomons parliament

Written by: Staff

Honiara, Apr 24: Security will be tight today in the Solomon Islands amid fears of rising tensions as parliament meets for the first time since the election of Prime Minister Snyder Rini sparked devastating riots.

More than 1,500 protesters gathered at Parliament House in the South Pacific nation's capital Honiara last Tuesday when Rini was elected leader, throwing rocks at police before rampaging through the city, looting and burning homes and businesses.

A second night of rioting followed before the arrival of hundreds of troops from Australia and New Zealand and a dusk-to-dawn curfew quelled the violence, but police and the military fear the parliament's first sitting could antagonise protesters.

''Parliament house will be locked down and people will not be allowed within a stone's throwing distance,'' Solomon Island Police Commissioner Shane Castles told reporters.

The rioting, fuelled by rumours that aid money from Taiwan was used to help elect Rini and that his government is heavily influenced by local Chinese businessmen, targeted the tiny, but economically powerful Chinese community in Honiara.

Honiara's Chinatown was destroyed in the rioting and looting, with buildings burnt to the ground, forcing some Chinese to jump from windows and flee across a river. The Chinese number just a few thousand in the Solomons' 550,000-strong population.

Hundreds of people from China fled their homes and have been sheltered by the Red Cross inside the police headquarters. Beijing organised an airlift for nearly 300 Chinese out of Honiara over the weekend.

South Pacific island nations, like the Solomons, have been caught in a battle for diplomatic influence between China and Taiwan, which split in a civil war six decades ago.

The Solomons officially recognises Taiwan, but China is trying to lure it away.

Police arrested an opposition politician yesterday night and charged him in relation to Tuesday's riots.

Solomons voters ousted half their parliament in the poll 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.

The poll was the first since Australian-led peacekeepers restored law and order in 2003 after violent ethnic unrest.

Australia has repeatedly said it is determined not to let the Solomons become a failed state and possible terrorist haven.

Opposition parties have already moved a no-confidence motion against Rini, which is due to go to a vote on Wednesday and could provide another provocation for protesters. Both sides claim they have the numbers to be successful.

The Solomons, a chain of 992 islands covering 1.35 million sq km of ocean, teetered on the brink of collapse in 2003 when armed gangs fought over Honiara. Australia then led a police peacekeeping force to restore law and order.

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 of police and military to almost 900.


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