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NZ, Aust troops land in Tonga

Published: 6:52PM Saturday November 18, 2006 Source: AAP

More than 150 New Zealand and Australian troops began arriving in Tonga on Saturday to help restore order after pro-democracy riots left eight dead and caused massive destruction.

The 110 troops and around 44 police have been deployed to help keep the peace and secure Tonga's airport, which has been closed since violence erupted in the tiny Pacific nation on Thursday.

"After receiving a request from the government of Tonga on Friday evening, Australia, in conjunction with New Zealand, has deployed military and police personnel to help restore stability," an Australian Defence Force spokesman said.

"The length of their deployment will be determined as the situation becomes clearer in the coming days."

Tonga declared a state of emergency on Friday and requested military reinforcements from the regional powers, a day after drunken youths went on the rampage in the capital Nuku'alofa demanding democratic reforms.

Eight bodies have been found in the ruins of two burned-out buildings in Nuku'alofa's main business district as armed police and soldiers sealed off the area that foreign diplomats said had been 80% destroyed.

Although an uneasy calm prevailed for a second day on Saturday, fires continued to flare in the ruins of destroyed office blocks, and residents spoke of rising tension as the full impact of the destruction hit home.

Hundreds have been left jobless, and business owners said they had nowhere to go to start again.

"This has set the country back 50 years," said journalist Mary Fonua as she surveyed the burned out ruins of her Matangi Tonga magazine and publishing business.

"This morning we have been trying to find alternative rooms for offices but there is nowhere to go."

New Zealand, which is leading the troop contingent, has sent 60 military personnel and up to 10 police, and Australia has deployed 50 military and 35 police.

An official at Tonga's Fua'amotu International Airport confirmed the troops began arriving this afternoon.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Australian counterpart John Howard announced the peace mission at a joint appearance in Hanoi, where they are attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum leaders' meeting.

"I hope that the security support to be provided by New Zealand and Australia will provide a basis for an early return to order and normality within Tonga," Clark said.

Clark said the New Zealand defence contingent would assist with security at the airport.

The primary role of the New Zealand police would be to provide security for the New Zealand high commissioner (ambassador) and his staff, while Australian police will mostly relieve and support exhausted local authorities.

"Obviously the situation in Tonga has come as a considerable surprise to many people," Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Paul Jevtovic told reporters.

"And the Tongan police have obviously been working extensively long hours and our role will be to support them and hopefully give them advice and share some of our experiences with them," he said.

The Tongan jails and holding cells are reportedly full as police round up those involved in the rampage.

Martial law

Under emergency regulations, the government has given the police and military sweeping powers to prevent any repeat of Thursday's disorder.

Clark said the foreign troops would discuss with the Tonga police what further assistance might be needed in the longer term.

"I expect those discussions will identify further areas where New Zealand and Australia can assist. We will look favourably at responding to those needs quickly," Clark said.

The latest Tonga riots erupted when the parliament looked likely to adjourn for the year without making a decision on expanding democracy, enraging pro-democracy activists.

Calm was restored after an emergency meeting of the cabinet, nobles and elected commoners on Friday agreed to the pro-democracy demands.

Legislators elected by popular vote will represent the majority in parliament at the next election in 2008, ending centuries of rule by nobles and people appointed by the royal family.

Tonga, a kingdom of around 115,000 people spread over 171 islands, 2,000 km north of Auckland, has witnessed growing demonstrations over the past year.