New Zealand’s government says it will send dozens of peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands after a request for help from the crisis-hit country following a week of deadly riots.
The move announced on Wednesday followed similar deployments by Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea aimed at restoring calm after peaceful protests calling for the removal of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare turned violent last week in the capital, Honiara.
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At least three people have died in unrest that has also reduced much of the city to smouldering rubble.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said an initial force of 15 members of the New Zealand Defence Force and the police would be sent to Honiara on Thursday to help stabilise the situation, with another 50 joining them over the weekend. She added that the security forces would work with Solomons police and about 200 regional peacekeepers already on the ground as part of the Australia-led mission.
“We are deeply concerned by the recent civil unrest and rioting in Honiara, and following yesterday’s request of the Solomon Islands Government, we have moved quickly to provide urgent assistance to help restore sustained peace and security,” Ardern said in a statement.
Ardern said the New Zealanders were well equipped to deal with dangerous situations: “Every deployment brings its risks and challenges but our people have vast experience in the Pacific region and are amongst some of the most highly skilled when it comes to de-escalating conflict,” she said.
Officials in Australia insist the deployment will only last “a matter of weeks” and that its focus is on policing, not intervening in the Solomons’ political situation.
New Zealand also took part in another Australian-led peacekeeping mission in the Solomons from 2003 to 2017.
An uneasy peace has prevailed in Honiara since Saturday, with residents cleaning up the streets after days of violence that saw anti-government crowds trying to storm the parliament, as well as torching much of Honiara’s Chinatown area and attempting to burn down Sogavare’s home.
Observers say the protests have been fuelled by poverty, unemployment and inter-island rivalries in the nation of 800,000.
Calm was restored after Australian troops and police rushed to respond to Sogavare’s desperate plea to Canberra for help, but authorities are still wary of more violence flaring up and aid agencies are expressing concern about food shortages.
Police have arrested more than 100 people, and on Saturday they said the charred remains of three people had been found in a burned-out shop in Chinatown.
Sogavare said the violence had caused 200 million Solomon Islands dollars ($25m) in damage and destroyed 1,000 jobs in an economy already squeezed by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
An early estimate of the cost of the rioting, released this weekend by the Central Bank of the Solomon Islands, said 56 buildings in the capital had been burned and looted, with many businesses facing a recovery of more than a year.
Sogavare is set to face a no-confidence motion filed by the opposition on Monday, providing another potential flashpoint for unrest.