Fiji coup leader promises democracy by March 2009

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SYDNEY, Oct 17 (Reuters) Fiji's coup leader and Prime Minister pledged to fellow South Pacific leaders today that he would restore democracy and accept the outcome of elections by the first quarter of 2009.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, Fiji's military chief who led a 2006 coup, came under pressure at a meeting in Tonga to commit to a timetable to return democracy to his island nation.

''It's fair to say there's been frank discussion and the leaders would not have settled for anything less than an absolute acceptance of the timetable for no later than the first quarter of 2009,'' New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark told reporters in Tonga during a break from the South Pacific leaders' summit.

''It's also very important to leaders that we got a commitment given to us in the meeting that the outcome of the election will be respected,'' said Clark in a transcript of her news conference in the Tongan's town of Vava'u.

Bainimarama seized power in a bloodless coup on Dec 5, 2006, claiming the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was corrupt and soft on those behind a 2000 coup.

Fiji has had four coups since 1987.

The self-appointed Prime Minister said in June he was willing to hold elections by early 2009, but many international observers said Fiji was making little movement towards democracy, with the military-backed government firmly in control.

Bainimarama, who temporarily reimposed a state of emergency in September when the deposed Prime Minister return to the Fijian capital, Suva, told reporters in Tonga that his government was making progress towards a March 2009 election.

Deposed Prime Minister Qarase launched court action this month, challenging the legality of Bainimarama's government.

The case has been adjourned until 2008.

ELECTION ROADMAP Bainimarama's coup drew international condemnation, with Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States imposing economic, diplomatic and defence sanctions.

A former British colony of about 900,000 people, Fiji had its Commonwealth membership suspended after the coup, just as it did after two similar upheavals in 1987 and again in 2000.

The 16-nation South Pacific Islands Forum issued a statement today supporting Fij's plans for elections, but warned it must produce a democracy ''roadmap'' before sanctions were lifted, said Tonga's Prime Minister Feleti Sevele.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, one of the most vocal critics of Fiji's military chief, said it was heartening that Bainimarama had signed up to the statement.

''So he has his obligations, which he has made to the leaders here in Tonga, and we have work ahead of us,'' Downer said.

South Pacific foreign ministers would meet in January 2008 to review progress towards the Fijian elections.

''We need to see a roadmap, we need to see benchmarks met,'' said Clark, while Downer added ''our lifting of sanctions will be conditions-based not time-based''.

REUTERS RN RS1132

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