Honiara (AFP) -
Australia rushed police and military peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands Thursday to quell two days of rioting that left the capital ablaze and threatened to topple the Pacific nation's government.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison authorised the snap deployment at the request of his Solomons counterpart Manasseh Sogavare, who protesters have demanded step down from office.
On Thursday thousands ignored a government lockdown order, torching several buildings around Honiara's Chinatown district including commercial properties and a bank branch.
By sunset, blazes dotted the Honiara skyline and plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city.
It followed widespread chaos in Honiara on Wednesday, when demonstrators attempted to storm parliament and depose Sogavare, a pro-Beijing leader who has become the focus of inter-island rivalry.
Morrison said the Australian deployment was immediate and expected to last 'a matter of weeks', unlike Canberra's last peacekeeping mission to the Solomons, which ran from 2003 to 2017.
'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.'
Morrison said the deployment would include just over 100 federal police officers and soldiers.
Australia's previous peacekeeping operation -- named the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) -- was deployed in 2003 and cost about US$2.2 billion over 14 years.
At the time, Canberra said it was needed to prevent the Solomons becoming 'a failed state', but critics said it dragged on too long because it was launched without a clear exit strategy.
- 'Mobs moving around' -
Honiara's latest spate of civil unrest has resulted in businesses operated by the capital's Chinese community being looted and burned, prompting Beijing's embassy to express 'serious concerns' to the Solomons' government.
'(The embassy) made representations requesting the Solomon Islands to take all necessary measures to strengthen the protection of Chinese enterprises and personnel,' it said in a statement.
Sogavare insisted his government still controlled the nation of 660,000, which lies 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) northeast of Australia.
'Today I stand before you to inform you all that our country is safe -- your government is in place and continues to lead our nation,' he said, adding that those responsible 'will face the full brunt of the law'.
After failing to break into parliament on Wednesday, the rioters regrouped a day later and ransacking a police station, a local resident told AFP.
The man, who did not want to be named, said police erected roadblocks but the unrest showed no sign of abating.
'There's mobs moving around, it's very tense,' the resident said, as local media reported looting and police using tear gas.
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 island's local government also strongly opposed the Solomons' decision to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019 -- a move engineered by Sogavare, who critics say is too close to Beijing.
- 'Pent-up anger' -
Opposition leader Matthew Wale called on the prime minister to resign, saying frustration at controversial decisions made during his tenure had led to the violence.
'Regrettably, frustrations and pent-up anger of the people against the prime minister are spilling uncontrollably over onto the streets, where opportunists have taken advantage of the already serious and deteriorating situation,' Wale said in a statement.
Malaita's provincial premier Daniel Suidani also demanded Sogavare's immediate departure, saying the prime minister 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.
Sogavare said those involved in the latest unrest had been 'led astray' by unscrupulous people.
'I had honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country, however... (these) events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go,' he said.
'Hundreds of citizens took the law into their own hands today. They were intent on destroying our nation and... the trust that was slowly building among our people,' the prime minister added.
'No one is above the law... these people will face the consequences of their actions,' he said.