Aussie cops hurt in Solomons riot

By David Eames, agencies

Looters set fire to parts of Honiara last night after Australian peacekeeping police used tear gas to block rock-throwing protesters from storming the Solomon Islands' Parliament after it chose a new Prime Minister.

Nine Australian Federal Police officers were injured when they were pelted with stones. One had a broken jaw, another a dislocated shoulder. Five local police were also hurt.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said late last night that New Zealand police were helping to restore order.

"Earlier this evening they evacuated the new Prime Minister from Parliament, where he and other Government members of Parliament had been barricaded for several hours by a violent crowd."

She said the situation remained uncertain and the New Zealand High Commission was monitoring events.

Seven Australian police cars were torched and others damaged while the Parliament was besieged and MPs trapped inside.

Gangs later rampaged largely unchallenged through the city's Chinatown as a police helicopter hovered overhead.

They smashed windows and seemed to take their time to haul away whatever they could steal.

Witnesses said local Solomon Islands police watched but did not intervene as shops owned by long-established Chinese families were cleaned out and burned.

A Government spokesman said plumes of smoke rose high over the capital and flames lit up the night sky.

"We have three mobs in town ... each up to 300 in strength [including] one near the Prime Minister's residence and another still in the central business district," said the Solomon Islands Commissioner of Police, Shane Castle.

Some protesters accused Chinese businessmen of bribing members of the Government and backing yesterday's election of Snyder Rini as PM.

They were angry that Mr Rini, a longtime Cabinet insider and former deputy leader, had been chosen despite a big anti-Government swing in an April 5 general election dominated by allegations of corruption.

About 500 supporters of rival candidate Job Dudley Tausinga took to the streets claiming the election had been fixed and votes bought.

The 50 MPs who took part in the vote for Prime Minister were kept in Parliament for their own safety for more than four hours after the ballot.

Demonstrators threw rocks at a heavily guarded convoy that evacuated Mr Rini from the legislature.

The melee was the worst unrest seen in the capital since Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific Governments intervened in 2003 to end years of bloody ethnic gang conflict.

NZ has 46 soldiers and 35 police in the Solomons.

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