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Fiji's PM: Military coup under way
by Ray Lilley

The Associated Press    Translate This Article
5 December 2006

SUVA, Fiji (AP) - Fiji's elected leader said Tuesday a military takeover was under way in the South Pacific country as armed troops surrounded his house and other government buildings in a lockdown of the capital.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said it was not clear who was in control of his tiny country.

``There are some things that aren't clear,'' Qarase told the Legend network by telephone, when he was asked if he was still in charge. ``If the military has completed the takeover, then they are in control. If they have not completed the takeover, then we are still the government of the day.''

Troops set up guard posts around his house on Tuesday, but left after about an hour. The military seized his car, however, so he was unable to leave his house and go to work. Other ministers' vehicles were also seized.

``There is virtually a coup now taking place,'' Qarase told New Zealand's National Radio earlier on Tuesday.

Armed forces chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama visited President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, and Qarase said the president could be a key player in determining the outcome of the crisis that has paralyzed the country for weeks.

Qarase has refused to meet Bainimarama's demand that he resign, prompting the military chief to order a gradual lockdown of the capital, Suva, since early Monday. Soldiers loyal to Bainimarama on Monday disarmed the police.

``They have strangled the police force—they've neutralized them in terms of arms and ammunition and now they are strangling the government machinery today,'' Qarase said.

Bainimarama has been threatening to ``clean up'' the government for weeks. He said soldiers had emptied two police armories Monday ``to ensure that police weapons are not used against the military.''

Bainimarama wants the government to kill legislation that would grant pardons to conspirators in a 2000 coup, and eliminate other bills he says unfairly favor indigenous Fijians. He has demanded the police tactical unit be disbanded, and that sedition investigations against senior military officers be dropped.

Qarase has offered to suspend the contentious bills, but says he cannot agree to any demands that go outside the law.

Qarase said he expected to meet the president later Tuesday. The prime minister said Iloilo had sought a meeting with him, and he believed the president would ask him to give in to Bainimarama's demands and quit. Under the constitution, the president has the authority to dismiss the government if he rules that it cannot carry out its duties.

Meanwhile, ministers—some of whom complained that their government vehicles were confiscated by troops overnight—came in small numbers to Qarase house for meetings. The confiscations appeared to be further pressure by the military to force Qarase to resign.

Checkpoints manned by heavily armed soldiers were in place at government buildings in central Suva and at key road intersections on Tuesday&mdsah;at one about a dozen troops manned a machine gun on a mound facing toward busy traffic.

Police were patrolling the streets as well.

Fiji, with about 900,000 people, is among the richest and most developed in the South Pacific, attracting up to 400,000 tourists a year to resorts on idyllic beaches mostly in the west, away from Suva.

A coup would be the fourth in 19 years for the country. The military twice grabbed power in 1987 to ensure political supremacy for indigenous Fijians among a population that includes a large ethnic Indian minority.

Gunmen angry that those advantages were being eroded seized Parliament in a 2000 coup that brought Qarase, a moderate nationalist, to power in a deal brokered by Bainimarama. Qarase has since won two elections but his relations with the military commander have long since soured.

Bainimarama issued a deadline of noon last Friday for Qarase to either meet his demands or step down. On Sunday, Bainimarama changed tack slightly and demanded Qarase allow an interim government to be appointed.

The raids appeared aimed at pressuring Qarase to voluntarily meet his demands, without the full military takeover that could trigger international censure and the possibility of sanctions.

``They are now reaching a point, the military, where they are trying to persuade the prime minister to stand down without actually mounting a coup,'' Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose country has been watching developments in nearby Fiji closely, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in Canberra.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark on Monday said that Bainimarama had been warned that international sanctions would follow if he staged a coup.

Qarase said he had been summoned to meet President Ratu Josefa Iloilo late Monday, but the meeting didn't go ahead after his car was turned back from the president's residence by armed troops.

On Tuesday, he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio: ``I am sitting at home and I hope to go to work. What happens after that, I don't know ... If the coup is completed, then, of course, I come from one of the small islands, I will just have to pack up and go home,'' he said.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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