Live images showed several buildings engulfed in flames and plumes of thick black smoke billowing high above the capital Honiara

Honiara (AFP) - Australia rushed peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands Thursday, hoping to quell riots that threatened to topple the Pacific nation’s government and left its capital ablaze.

After a second day of widespread protests and looting in Honiara, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called on neighbouring Australia for help.

The first contingent of a 100-strong Australian police and military force arrived late Thursday, according to local media, as a defiant Sogavare said that although the country had been “brought to its knees” by unrest, he would not resign.

The archipelago nation of around 700,000 people has for decades been beset by ethnic and political tensions.

The latest bout of unrest began on Wednesday when thousands of protesters besieged parliament, setting fire to an outbuilding and calling for Sogavare’s ouster.

Map locating the Solomon Islands where rioting broke out in the capital Honiara for the second day in a row on Thursday.

Since then the protests have quickly descended into a violent free-for-all, with gangs of stick-wielding youths rampaging through the capital, stripping stores of goods and clashing with police.

“There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” one resident told AFP, asking not to be named.

By late Thursday thousands of looters openly defied police lockdown orders, running through the streets carrying boxes, crates and bulging sacks of goods as flames crackled around them and plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city.

Images published on social media showed buildings engulfed in flames, shopfronts smouldering and corrugated roofs twisted and collapsed in the capital.

Debris, including trash and tree branches, was strewn across the streets.

Banks, schools, police stations, offices and Chinese-owned businesses were among the buildings reportedly torched.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian expressed “grave concern” and called on the Solomon Islands government “to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens and organisations”.

- Slow burn -

The unrest has been sparked by pandemic-fuelled economic frustrations and a long-running rivalry between residents of the country’s most populous island Malaita and the Guadalcanal-based central government.

In the late 1990s Guadalcanal militants launched attacks on settlers, particularly targeting those from Malaita, and for five years unrest plagued the country.

Most of the protesters in Honiara are reportedly from the neighbouring island of Malaita, where people have long complained of neglect by the central government

The so-called “Tensions” only eased with the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping mission – named the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the latest Australian deployment was expected to last “a matter of weeks”, unlike Canberra’s previous peacekeeping mission, which ran from 2003 to 2017 and cost about US$2.2 billion.

“It is not the Australian government’s intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands, that is for them to resolve,” he said. “Our purpose here is to provide stability and security.”

Malaita residents continue to complain that their island is neglected by the central government.

Since 2019 the feud has been turbocharged by a row over Sogavare’s decision to abruptly break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognise Beijing.

Malaita authorities opposed the move and defiantly maintained contact with the Taiwan authorities. As a result the province continues to receive outsized aid from Taipei and Washington.

The province’s premier Daniel Suidani has accused Sogavare of being in Beijing’s pocket, alleging he had “elevated the interest of foreigners above those of Solomon Islanders”.

“People are not blind to this and do not want to be cheated anymore,” he said.

Experts say geopolitical rivalry is now fuelling the crisis.

“Political competition doesn’t trigger a riot in Honiara,” said Mihai Sora, an expert on the Pacific at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

“But the actions of these great powers – while they curry favour with individual political actors – have a destabilising effect on what is already a fragile and vulnerable country.”

“Then of course the contemporary context is one of extended economic hardship due to Covid restrictions, a Covid state of emergency,” he told AFP.

“The health and economic impacts of Covid have only added to the pressures that any developing country was facing before the pandemic hit.”