Fiji's military faces sanctions after seizing power from PM

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The Independent Online

Fiji's armed forces have staged the country's fourth coup in 20 years after a long-running political crisis.

The bloodless seizure of power - ending weeks of tension between the military commander and the Prime Minister - was played out in a typically leisurely Melanesian fashion, and resulted in immediate international sanctions.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama said yesterday he had temporarily assumed the country's presidency and sacked Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and his ministers, who he accused of bribery and corruption.

"We consider that Fiji has reached a crossroads and that the government and all those empowered to make decisions in our constitutional democracy are unable to make decisions to save our people from destruction," he told a press conference yesterday.

The Commodore claimed the government, which had won a second five-year term in May, was too lenient with those behind Fiji's last coup in 2000. He had first threatened to overthrow Mr Qarase in July last year.

The Prime Minister, who is under house arrest, has refused to resign. He had previously asked Australia and New Zealand to send troops to Fiji to prevent the coup but was refused.

The Commonwealth's secretary general, Don McKinnon, warned that Fiji faced suspension from the 53-nation organisation which champions democratic principles. The country was suspended in 1987 and 2000 following military interventions.

"The likelihood of Fiji to be suspended is very high," said Mr McKinnon, a New Zealander who convened a meeting of eight Commonwealth foreign ministers in London on Friday which is expected to take the decision to suspend Fiji. Britain immediately suspended bilateral and military assistance, although it has no troops in Fiji. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said the coup was, "a major setback to the process of democracy in Fiji".

The political crisis has alarmed countries in the region and Australia sent three warships to Fiji in case its nationals had to be evacuated. The unrest follows trouble in the nearby Solomon Islands.

New Zealand's Prime Minister, Helen Clarke, attacked the "arrogance" of Commodore Bainimarama, saying she could only conclude he was, "severely deluded". "He called on people not to break the law - the military commander has just ripped up Fiji's constitution and chucked it out the window," she said.

New Zealand, which hosted crisis talks between the two Fijians last week, joined Australia in suspending defence ties with Fiji and barred those involved with the coup from entering either country. A ban on sporting contacts is also possible in the future.

Heavily armed troops set up roadblocks throughout the capital Suva and in Nadi, the tourism hub in the west of the main island of Viti Levu.

Last night, the situation in Suva was described as calm but uncertain by Romanu Naceva, a former sergeant major in the Royal Artillery and head of the British Servicemen's Families Association.

"What has happened is regrettable, it's illegal but what can we do? The only support the commodore has had is within his own establishment," he said.

It was announced the interim prime minister would be a doctor, Jona Baravilala Senilagakali, who is not a member of the military and has no political experience.

Four military coups in 20 years

May 1987

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1970, Fiji is wracked by ethnic tension between the country's Fijian and Indo-Fijian ethnic groups. The army, led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, topples the Indo-Fijian government of Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra in a bloodless coup.

September 1987

A second coup declares Fiji a republic and gives native Fijians a much larger share of power despite the Indo-Fijian population being marginally larger. Amid international outcry, Fiji is thrown out of the Commonwealth and thousands of Indo-Fijians flee.

May 2000

Although Fiji is readmitted into the Commonwealth in 1997, its membership is suspended after nationalist George Speight takes PM Mahenrda Chaudry, an ethnic Indian, hostage, sparking another coup. Speight is jailed for treason and Laisenia Qarase is made Prime Minister.

December 2006

Mr Qarase proposes an amnesty for the plotters of the 2000 coup - a move bitterly opposed by the military. Relations reach rock bottom as the Prime Minister tries to fire Fiji's military leader Frank Bainimarama who refuses to step down and launches the fourth military coup.