Chinese refugees flown out of riot-torn Solomon Islands

Published April 23, 2006

HONIARA, Solomon Islands - Nearly 90 Chinese refugees fled the troubled Solomon Islands on a Beijing chartered aircraft Saturday - the second group to quit the Pacific archipelago after a series of riots razed their homes and businesses.

Arsonists, looters and rioters inflicted tens of millions of dollars in damage on the capital Honiara's Chinatown district this week, sparked by rumors that either China or Taiwan had paid lawmakers to elect an unpopular new prime minister, Snyder Rini.

Rini served in a previous administration accused of corruption.

Gao Feng, a diplomat who traveled from China's embassy in nearby Papua New Guinea to help with the evacuation, said the Solomon Islands no longer were safe for ethnic Chinese.

"Most of these people are homeless, their livelihoods are finished so they have to go," he said as he helped 89 evacuees into trucks heading for the airport.

"People feel their lives are being threatened, too, even though half of them are citizens of Solomon Islands."

The Solomon Islands, like many other Pacific island countries, is caught in a tug of war for diplomatic influence between China and Taiwan, which split amid civil war a half-century ago.

The nation is one of a handful that officially recognizes Taiwan, but China is trying to lure it and Taiwan's other diplomatic allies away. Both sides accuse the other of spending lavishly to influence the outcome of the tussle.

Some experts have said the "dollar diplomacy" by China and Taiwan has exacerbated corruption in the region.

Beijing and Taipei deny having any influence on Rini's election, but a belief among many locals that both governments may have meddled has prompted a general anti-Asian backlash.

Over the past few days, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji have boosted police and troop numbers in Honiara to more than 1,050 to restore law and order.