Rebuilding Tongan businesses could take $75 million and 5 years
NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga » Rebuilding the burned-out business center of Tonga's capital after a riot last week would take five years and up to $75 million, a senior official said today.
About 80 percent of businesses in Nuku'alofa were burned during a rampage of rioting, looting and arson Thursday in which at least eight people died in fires.
Officials have said the violence was triggered by anger that the nation's Parliament might finish this year's session last Thursday without settling plans for reforms giving democratically elected lawmakers a parliamentary majority over legislators appointed by King Tupou V.
The government signed off on the reform plan soon after the rioting started.
"Our current approximation of the value of the damage done is roughly between ... US$60 million-US$75 million," senior government adviser Lopeti Senituli said.
Reconstruction could "take us at least five years," he told New Zealand's National Radio.
About 150 Australian and New Zealand security forces have deployed at the airport and other key points in the city to help keep order, though tensions remain high as pro-democracy leaders accuse them of propping up the undemocratic system.
Some in Tonga blamed the riot on thugs hired by business owners to use a pro-democracy rally as a front to launch attacks on rival operators.
Many stores owned by ethnic Chinese traders, who hold a large slice of commerce in Tonga, were destroyed in the violence. Rioters also trashed government offices and a supermarket owned by Prime Minister Fred Sevele's family.
Mike Jones, a New Zealander who runs a business in Tonga, alleged some of the rioters were paid $5 a day by unscrupulous business operators to cause trouble.
"It wasn't a riot as such. It was an organized attempt to cut out all of the Chinese and whatever businesses were in opposition" to the unscrupulous traders, Jones told National Radio.
He offered no evidence of the claim.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said the claims had not been raised in her discussions with Tonga's leaders.
"What began as peaceful protest had other elements come in and take over," she said. "Whether their motivation was just sheer destruction, whether there was alcohol and other influences at work, who knows. That will come out in the full investigation."
Senituli said Tongan authorities were investigating the cause of the riot with the help of police from Australia and New Zealand.