CANBERRA, Australia — Australia announced on Thursday that it was sending police, troops and diplomats to the Solomon Islands to help after anti-government protesters defied lockdown orders and took to the streets for a second day of violent protests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the deployment included a detachment of 23 federal police officers and up to 50 others to provide security at critical infrastructure sites, as well as 43 defense force personnel, patrol boats and at least five diplomats.
The first personnel left Australia on Thursday with more on Friday, and the deployment is expected to last for several weeks, Morrison said.
“Our goal here is to provide stability and security,” he said.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare announced the closure on Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered to protest in the capital, Honiara, demanding his resignation over a number of domestic issues.
Protesters broke through the National Parliament building and set fire to the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set fire to the police station and other buildings.
“They intend to destroy our nation and … the slowly building trust among our people,” the government said in a statement.
Morrison said Sogavare sought help from Australia amid the violence under a bilateral security agreement.
“It is not the intention of the Australian government in any way to interfere in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands. That’s what they have to do,” he said.
“Our presence there does not imply any position on Solomon Islands internal matters,” Morrison added.
Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands which restored peace to the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 to 2017.
Sogavare ordered the capital under lockdown from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 p.m. Friday after saying he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government.”
“I honestly think that we have passed the darkest days in the history of our country,” he said. “However, today’s events are a painful reminder that we still have a long way to go.”
Despite announcements from Solomon Islands police that they would increase patrols through Honiara amid the lockdown, protesters took to the streets again on Thursday.
Local journalist Gina Kekea posted photos on Twitter of a bank, shop and school on fire.
Morrison said he decided to send help after it became clear that the police in the Solomon Islands were “extending.”
Sogavare angered many in 2019, especially the leaders of the Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he severed the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan, instead shifting his diplomatic allegiance to China.
Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita, whose prime minister, Daniel Suidani, is at odds with Sogavare, whom he accuses of being too close to Beijing.
Suidani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, but told Solomon Star News he agreed with calls for Sogavare to step down.
“Over the past 20 years of Mannaseh Sogavare in power, the fate of the Solomon Islands population has worsened while at the same time foreigners have reaped the best of the country’s resources,” Suidani was quoted as saying. “People are not blind to this and don’t want to be deceived anymore.”
Honiara journalist Elizabeth Osifelo said the cause of the chaos was “a mixture of many frustrations.”
“The shift to China from Taiwan, that too, I can, say part of it,” Osefelo told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. has undergone.”
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