Police repelled rioters from the home of the Solomon Islands' leader on Friday as violence in the country's capital continued for a third day despite the arrival of Australian peacekeepers.
The day had begun with a mix of hope and horror, as the end of a 36-hour lockdown allowed stunned residents to wander the debris-strewn streets of Honiara while burned-out buildings smoldered. But by late afternoon, a resurgence of arson and looting had led the government to implement an overnight citywide curfew, and some residents feared the worst was yet to come.
The civil unrest in the South Pacific has its roots in wider geopolitical tensions.
The Solomon Islands, which sit in a strategic but politically volatile part of the world, switched allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019, underlining Beijing's expanding influence in a region traditionally dominated by the United States and Australia. The diplomatic U-turn angered many in this archipelago, and combined with long-standing local grievances, it boiled over into violence this week.
"It still hasn't settled," said local journalist Georgina Kekea. She said police in riot gear had struggled to disperse a large, angry crowd gathered outside the home of embattled Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, and that a structure near the home had been set on fire. Police fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse them, Agence France-Presse reported.
Those who had not joined in the looting were at risk of going hungry, Kekea said.
Many residents hoped the overnight arrival of two dozen Australian federal police officers -- the tip of a 120-strong force aimed at quelling the unrest -- would end a surge of violence in which rioters torched dozens of buildings, including Chinese-owned shops and part of the national Parliament complex.
As residents took to the streets on Friday morning, however, there was no sign of the Australian peacekeepers, Kekea said. Rioting continued in the center and east of the city.
The violence had begun Wednesday after hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the national Parliament building to demand Sogavare step down. Some demonstrators then set fire to a grass hut next to Parliament before torching a police station and several buildings in Chinatown.
Rioting continued Thursday, as much of Chinatown went up in flames. That afternoon, Sogavare called his Australian counterpart to ask for help, and Scott Morrison announced he was sending about 80 Australian Federal Police officers and more than 40 military personnel. Papua New Guinea also sent a small security detachment.
Many of the protesters came to Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, from Malaita, the most populous island in the archipelagic nation, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia.
Tensions have simmered between the two islands since the national government recognized China at the expense of Taiwan two years ago, a move opposed by Malaita's premier, Daniel Suidani, who claimed he had been offered a bribe to support the switch. Sogavare denied the accusation.
Suidani pledged Malaita would never engage with Beijing and terminated licenses of businesses owned by ethnic Chinese, drawing a rebuke from the national government.
Sogavare defended the diplomatic switch, even as he said the decision was the root cause of the unrest.
"That's the only issue," he said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published Friday. "And unfortunately, it is influenced and encouraged by other powers."
"These very countries that are now influencing Malaita are the countries that don't want ties with the People's Republic of China and they are discouraging Solomon Islands to enter into diplomatic relations" with Beijing, Sogavare said in an apparent reference to Taiwan and the United States. "I don't want to name names, we'll leave it there, we know who they are."
Opposition leader Matthew Wale denied Sogavare's claim that he was one of the people behind the unrest and dismissed the idea that foreign powers were to blame.
"The people in this country feel that the democratic processes are not working for them, that their own government is the puppet of China," he told the ABC.
Much of the violence has targeted Honiara's Chinatown, with dozens of buildings -- many Chinese-owned -- burned and looted.
"There is basically nothing left there," Kekea said shortly after visiting the neighborhood on Friday. "There are only six buildings that are still standing, but otherwise most of the shops have been looted and burned."
Chinese officials have said they are "seriously concerned" about attacks on Chinese citizens and institutions.
Anthony Leong from the Pacific-China Friendship Association said some of the organization's members in Honiara had "gone to ground."
"Things are in chaos right now," he said in an email.
The Global Times, a Chinese state-owned nationalist tabloid, reported that more than 100 shops owned by Chinese nationals had been destroyed, and that some store owners were "hiding in the hills."
One of the few structures left unscorched in Chinatown was a building draped in Taiwanese flags.
By Friday evening, Australian federal police officers had begun to appear around town, dressed in black fatigues and carrying machine guns. A police helicopter -- not seen since Australian peacekeepers were last in Honiara -- hovered overhead.
Charley Piringi, a local journalist, hoped the Australians would restore order.
"Unlike yesterday, when the [local] police were nowhere to be found," he said. "They just let people loot and put fire to buildings."
Information for this article was contributed by Alicia Chen of The Washington Post.