Top officers accused of plot to kill Fiji's Prime Minister

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The Independent Online

Authorities said yesterday that they have arrested 16 people and charged three of them with treason in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Fiji's military leader, while Australia and New Zealand angrily rejected suggestions they were involved.

The 16 people were arrested since Saturday in what police said was a foiled plot by dissident troops and others against army chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a bloodless coup last December and declared himself interim prime minister of the Pacific island chain.

Police commissioner Esala Teleni declined to name the three who were charged Monday with treason, inciting mutiny and conspiracy to murder. But he said a fourth man, New Zealand businessman Ballu Khan, also would be charged in the plot when he is released from a hospital.

Khan reportedly was beaten by police when he was detained on Saturday, sparking a protest from New Zealand. Teleni said he suffered "minor injuries" when he resisted arrest.

"Police ... are satisfied that ... we have successfully blocked any threat to the government, the community and the safety and well being of tourists in this country," he said in a statement.

Teleni said Sunday that the alleged plotters included local politicians who wanted to foment an insurgency. He pointed to possible involvement of "foreign governments" — understood to mean Australia and New Zealand — and suggested that money was funneled to plotters through private aid groups.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters in Adelaide that the allegations were "completely absurd."

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark also rejected Teleni's suggestions as "wild statements" and said the plot allegations were a pretext to round up Bainimarama's opponents. She said her government's funding of non-governmental organizations in Fiji involved building housing for the poor.

"It is extremely farfetched to say that New Zealand NGO money is funding a coup," she told reporters.

Western nations have urged Bainimarama to restore democracy in Fiji, and expressed concern when he imposed a monthlong state of emergency in September. The Pacific nation of about 900,000 people, which relies heavily on a thriving tourist industry, has a history of turbulent politics, including two military coups in 1987 and a civilian-led coup in 2000.

Fiji police said the alleged plot involved arms and explosives, although Teleni said no such weapons had yet been found.

Bainimarama blamed the plot on "disgruntled groups" affected by the government's anti-corruption programme.

"Such people have the potential to go to extremes in undermining the work which the interim government has been mandated to undertake," he said in a statement Monday.

He repeated a commitment to hold elections before the end of March 2009.

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