Fiji teetered on the brink of a military coup yesterday as the Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, resisted calls to resign while armed troops commandeered seven tons of ammunition and took up positions near the capital.
Rising tensions in the South Pacific nation have alarmed neighbours including Australia, which has put two warships on stand-by to evacuate its citizens.
The Unite States warned that its aid programme could be suspended if the military seized power.
Fiji had two coups in 1987 and became an international pariah in 2000 after armed civilians marched into parliament and took the Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, hostage. Mr Chaudhry and his ministers were held captive for nine weeks, with the situation resolved only after the army, led by its commander, Frank Bainimarama, took control.
The latest crisis in the former British colony stems from a long-running dispute between Mr Bainimarama and Mr Qarase, whom he appointed in the messy aftermath of the last coup. Mr Qarase went on to win two free elections, most recently last May. But the outspoken commander, who regards himself as a national saviour because of his actions in 2000, has become the Prime Minister's sternest critic.
He has accused Mr Qarase of corruption and is incensed by plans to offer an amnesty to the plotters of 2000. Proposed legislation would see the coup leader, George Speight, released from prison. Tensions escalated earlier this month when Mr Bainimarama issued an ultimatum, calling on Mr Qarase to abandon the amnesty or resign.
On Tuesday, with Mr Bainimarama visiting Fijian troops in Iraq, Mr Qarase tried to turn the tables and sack him. But the move failed spectacularly, when the senior officer earmarked to replace him, Lt-Col Ratu Meli Saubulinayau, declined the offer, instead pledging loyalty to his commander.
Yesterday armed troops put on a show of strength, driving through the capital, Suva, and seizing a shipment of bullets, in defiance of the Police Commissioner, Australian-born Andrew Hughes. Mr Hughes, who had sought a guarantee that it would not be used against the government, said that he regarded a military coup as "a real threat".
As 3,000 military reservists were called to barracks, Mr Bainimarama, who is expected home later this week, told the Fiji Sun newspaper: "I'll be back to see that Qarase and his cronies step down."
But Mr Qarase said there was "no question" of him resigning in a speech broadcast to the nation yesterday. "We have the constitutional authority and the support of the people to rule now and for the next five years," he said.
He also raised the possibility of foreign intervention, noting that international affairs had changed since 2000. "The international community is now more proactive in protecting democratic governments when the rule of law and constitutionality are threatened or overturned," he said.
Both Australia and New Zealand have expressed support for his government. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, said that Mr Bainimarama should step down.
Previous coups were racially motivated, with indigenous Fijians worried about losing political control to ethnic Indians, who dominate the economy. Mr Chaudhry was the first ethnic Indian prime minister.
The latest instability threatens to damage the economy, which is reliant on tourism. Some observers hope that it may be resolved by senior tribal chiefs, who have played a mediating role in the past. The Great Council of Chiefs is due to meet next week. Whether they can prevent Fiji's fourth coup in 19 years remains to be seen.Reuse content