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Hundreds of Ethnic Chinese Flee Troubled Solomon Islands


Hundreds of ethnic Chinese people have fled the Solomon Islands following the rioting there last week. Tensions in the troubled South Pacific nation continue with Australian troops surrounding the parliament in the capital Honiara to stop more protests against the new prime minister, Snyder Rini.

Honiara's Chinese community took the full-force of last week's riots. Most of the buildings in the city's Chinatown district were burned down during the unrest.

Opponents of the recently appointed Prime Minister Snyder Rini have claimed he used money from wealthy Chinese businessmen to bribe his way into power.

Mr. Rini has strongly denied the allegations.

The Chinese government has chartered an aircraft to help several hundred of its citizens escape the shattered city.

Gao Feng - a representative from China's embassy in Papua New Guinea - says despite the trauma they've endured, many of the evacuees will want to return to the Solomon Islands when the country is more stable.

"I think a lot of people want to come but if the condition is very bad and very difficult, and they cannot get a safe state, they won't come," Gao says. "They have lost a very big investment - their house, their property."

Australia has sent in more reinforcements ahead of what could be another difficult week in the Solomons.

Foreign peacekeepers Monday surrounded the parliament building as lawmakers met for the first time since elections earlier this month.

Not all of the members were there. One opposition member has been arrested for allegedly encouraging last week's unrest.

What began as a political protest against Mr. Rini quickly became a frenzy of looting and mob violence. Many of Honiara's ethnic Chinese residents narrowly escaped death as their properties were attacked.

Many political and regional analysts say the allegation of Chinese attempt to influence local politics is rooted in the rivalry between mainland China and Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China considers its own.

For years, Beijing has tried to isolate the Taipei government, and now only a handful of small countries, including the Solomon Islands, recognize Taiwan diplomatically. The Beijing government has tried to woo many of these countries to switch recognition to the mainland.

On Wednesday, Mr. Rini is expected to face a vote of no-confidence in the parliament.

Peacekeepers will be on full alert and their commanders concede that meeting could be another potential flashpoint.

Foreign forces were first sent to the Solomon Islands in 2003 after years of ethnic fighting had left the country in ruins. Since then, the government had improved security and most of the foreign troops and police officers had gone home.

Much of that good work has now gone up in smoke.

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