Tense stand-off in Fiji amid coup warnings

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Location of Fiji

Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase yesterday failed to overthrow the military Commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. The President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, decided yesterday to dismiss Bainimarama on the advice of Qarase, but the move backfired when a senior military officer refused to accept an offer by the President to take control of the armed forces.

In response, soldiers have staged exercises on the streets of Suva and sealed off the main army barracks.

Bainimarama has threatened to force Qarase to resign unless he drops two contentious bills, one of which will offer amnesty to some of those involved in the coup d'état orchestrated by George Speight, which deposed the elected government of then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry in 2000, and in two mutinies, one of which took place several months after the cuop.

Commodore Bainimarama is currently visiting troops performing peacekeeping duties in the Middle East.

Bainimarama and other senior military personnel have continued to call on Qarase to stand down.

According to a senior military officer, Qarase has threatened to resign if Bainimarama is not ousted.

Earlier yesterday, military spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni, said it would be "unwise" to remove Commodore Bainimarama.

Mr Qarase called emergency cabinet and National Security council meetings this morning and addressed the nation this afternoon, while senior military officers met this morning. In his address, Qarase refused to resign and said that he would not bow to intimidation.

A joint press conference with acting military commander Elasa Teleni and Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, an Australian, this morning was canceled and Hughes said he had so far been unable to make contact with military leaders today.

Australia has issued a travel advisory for Fiji, warning of tension between the military and the Government.

"We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Fiji due to increased tensions between the Fiji government and the Fiji military forces and the possibility of military action against the government," DFAT said on its website.

The United States warned the armed forces of Fiji against carrying out a coup against the elected civilian government of the racially divided Pacific island nation.

Australia has also said it is "very concerned" over the real risk of a military coup in the Pacific Island nation of Fiji, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Wednesday.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark urged Bainimarama to accept the decision of the country's government to sack him and step down.

Fiji has suffered three coups and a failed mutiny since 1987.