Sun, Nov 19, 2006 - Page 5 News List

New Zealand sends reinforcements to Tonga

DISPLACED Hundreds of ethnic Chinese have been driven by racial riots to seek refuge at China's embassy and a police college outside the capital


Soldiers and police from New Zealand arrived in Tonga yesterday to help restore order after riots that left at least eight people dead and trashed most of the capital's business district, officials said.

A contingent of 60 troops and 10 police flew in from New Zealand to secure the Pacific Island nation's only international airport after foreign airlines refused to use it due to a lack of security, Tongan Defense Services spokesman Major Veehala said.

Like many Tongans, Veehala goes by a single name.

Another 50 troops and 35 police from Australia, including forensic experts to identify the bodies of those who died in fires during the riots, were also due to arrive later yesterday.

The goal of the troops is to secure infrastructure including power stations, broadcasting systems and key government buildings.

Two more Chinese shops in Tonga were torched in attacks overnight, but the capital was "reasonably calm" yesterday, Police Commander Sinilau Kolokihakaufisi said. "We hope the situation remains calm."

Nobody was in the shops when the attacks on Friday night occurred, he said, and up to 200 ethnic Chinese -- one-fifth the number living in Tonga -- have sought refuge after about 30 Chinese-owned stores and businesses were torched during Thursday's riot.

Government spokesman Lopeti Senituli said about 20 young men had been arrested overnight for breaking and entering premises in the capital, much of which was a smoldering ruin after Thursday's riot.

Angry youths on Thursday overturned cars, attacked government officials and looted shops and offices before setting them ablaze in the tiny, impoverished kingdom. Officials said about 80 percent of the capital had been destroyed.

As in many South Pacific countries, ethnic Chinese traders have a large chunk of the economy in Tonga's capital, and are sometimes resented by locals who perceive them as outsiders despite many families having been there for generations.

Thursday's violence appeared to target Chinese businesses, but also government offices and businesses linked to government figures.

Chinese Ambassador to Tonga Hu Yeshun (胡業順), said his embassy had "received over 150 people, whose houses or stores were destroyed by the mobs," and his staff were still trying to contact all Chinese residents to make sure they were safe.

Kolokihakaufisi said about 200 Chinese, including many Tongan citizens, had been displaced from their homes by the violence and were being accommodated at the police college and at a village outside the city.

"They're guarded by people in the village," he said.

The violence was triggered by anger that parliament might finish this year's session without settling plans to introduce reforms that would give democratically elected lawmakers a parliamentary majority over royally appointed legislators.

The government on Thursday agreed to a plan to ensure that 21 of the 30 lawmakers in parliament will be elected starting in 2008 -- but it came too late to prevent the rioting from breaking out.

Firefighters on Friday found eight charred bodies while searching the rubble of burned-out shops, businesses and two hotels. At least six of the victims were believed to be looters or rioters that had been trapped in the buildings by smoke or flames.

Tonga's king said he was greatly distressed that a small but dangerous criminal element had caused deaths, injuries and property damage, and extended his sympathy to the families of tho who had been killed and whose businesses had been wrecked.

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