Sat, Nov 18, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Pro-democracy rioting leaves six dead in Tonga

ANGER AT PARLIAMENT The legislature suggested delaying reform proposals until next year, but quickly signed off on them after the violence broke out


Firefighters found six charred bodies yesterday in the rubble left by a pro-democracy riot in Tonga's capital, as the tiny and impoverished nation's government asked its larger neighbors to send troops to maintain order.

The rampage on Thursday by angry youths who overturned cars, attacked government officials and looted shops and offices before setting them ablaze was unprecedented in the normally placid South Pacific kingdom.

The trigger for the violence was anger that parliament might finish its session for the year without settling plans to introduce reforms that would give democratically elected lawmakers a majority in parliament over royally appointed legislators.

The six bodies were found in the burned-out offices of a power company and were believed to be looters or rioters because all company's employees had been accounted for, said Tongan Lord Chamberlain Fielakepa, who acts as spokesman for the king and like many Tongan nobles uses just one name.

There was no sign of further violence yesterday, though smoke from burning buildings hung over the capital. The government declared part of the downtown area off-limits and set up cordons.

Lopeti Senituli, a spokesman for Tongan Prime Minister Fred Sevele, said the government had approved flying 150 troops and police from Australia and New Zealand into Tonga to help ensure security for key national infrastructure.

Some 90 Australian troops and 40 federal police were due to land at the airport at 8:30pm yesterday, he said. Another 20 New Zealand troops "tasked with securing the airport" were expected by early today, he said.

The requests for help from Australia and New Zealand, which are considered regional powers in the South Pacific, "is to ensure peace and security" is maintained, and "an acknowledgment our security apparatus is ... short of manpower," Senituli added.

The two developed nations also form the bulk of a peacekeeping force sent to the nearby Solomon Islands to quell unrest and rioting there in April.

Speaking before Senituli's comments, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Canberra was ready to send police or military forces to Tonga if necessary.

"We ... remain prepared to help if we're needed," Downer told reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam, adding that Australia would expect New Zealand to "take the lead first and foremost."

New Zealand's acting prime minister, Michael Cullen, said yesterday his country would "seriously consider" any Tongan requests for aid, with troops and an air force Hercules transport airplane on standby.

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