Wed, Nov 22, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Tongan business owners blame riots on rivals

ELECTION-RELATED?The unrest that killed eight people may have been caused by backers of Chinese and local businessmen who will face off in the nation's next poll

AFP , NUKU'ALOFA

Tongan business leaders -- blaming business rivalry, not activists supporting democracy -- put the cost of devastating riots that left eight dead and the capital in flames at up to US$120 million.

"There's a group of people who engineered this and we know who they are," said Mary Fonua, whose publishing company was destroyed.

"It's business rivalry, involving people who are likely to be rival candidates in the next election and also between Tongan and Chinese businessmen," Fonua said.

The blame for the rampage on Thursday was first placed at the feet of Tonga's pro-democracy movement, as the destruction started at the end of a political rally demanding reforms to the kingdom's semi-feudal system.

But the business community spoke out yesterday, saying the protests were engineered by business people trying to wipe out their competition.

"This was no damn riot," New Zealander Mike Jones, who employs 250 workers in Tonga, told a meeting of business owners.

"They have their own agenda. They abused the democracy rally to fire everyone up by feeding them and giving them drinks," Jones said.

Government officials, who have inspected the devastated area, said 66 buildings -- many housing several companies -- were damaged and estimated the cost at US$60 million to US$75 million, a figure ridiculed by storeowners.

"It's much more than that. Based on replacement cost it will be at least 200 to 250 million [Tongan pa'anga; US$96 million to US$120 million]," department store owner Richard Prema said.

Prema, who put his own losses at US$1.5 million, said a more definite figure would emerge later in the week when operators were allowed to return to their burnt-out premises to see what could be salvaged.

Lopeti Senituli, who serves as an adviser to Tongan Prime Minister Feteli Sevele, said every possible lead into the cause of the riot was being investigated.

"The police are certainly conducting an intensive and widespread investigation into the riots and its causes," he said.

He said two weeks before the riots the Tongan Business Group had presented a petition to the king's office calling for the sacking of the prime minister.

"They are part of the list of people that are being investigated," he added.

Senituli said it would take the country at least five years to rebuild the city center.

Australian and New Zealand troops and police, called in by the Tongan government, have secured the airport to allow international flights to resume. The foreign forces stepped up their presence on Monday as Sevele declared he would not step down over the deadly rampage.

Tongan Civil Aviation Minister Paul Karusu told the business meeting the foreign security personnel were not there to restore law and order but for their "apprehension and interrogation skills."

"We all know a crime was committed and this is being addressed," he said.

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