Fiji arrests 16 over PM assassination plot

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SUVA, Nov 5 (Reuters) Fiji police have arrested 16 people over an assassination plot against the South Pacific island nation's coup leader and prime minister.

Three of those arrested were charged today with treason, inciting mutiny and conspiracy to murder, police said. The three, whose names were withheld, are expected in court tomorrow.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama assured the public and tourists that Fiji's police would maintain safety in the island nation hit by four coups and an army mutiny since 1987.

''There are obviously disgruntled groups out there who are feeling the full impact of the interim government's 'Clean Up Campaign','' Bainimarama said in a statement today.

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

''The interim government's priority is to maintain a peaceful, safe and secure environment for everyone in the country.'' Fiji Police Commissioner Esala Teleni said more arrests were possible and that police had asked for military assistance.

''Our intelligence has received information that several suspects and others are believed to be armed. Hence my request for military assistance because the police cannot handle it on their own,'' Teleni told a news conference in Suva.

Police did not release details of the assassination plot against Bainimarama, the military chief who came to power in a 2006 coup, prompting opposition politicians to accuse his regime of tightening control of Fiji.

Bainimarama narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 2000 during a failed bloody army mutiny. The military chief was forced to flee his barracks in Suva over a fence and into bushes.

SEVERE BEATING New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said one of those arrested, a New Zealand man, had been beaten so badly he was unable to talk and was being detained in a Suva hospital.

''His face was in a very sorry state to the extent that he had difficulty speaking. He had been literally terrorised through the night. It's absolutely terrifying. No person should be treated like this,'' Clark told New Zealand media.

A hospital source said the man had a broken jaw and ribs.

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

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.

Fiji's military said on Monday that it would not re-impose a state of emergency, lifted in October, because of the assassination plot, reported fijilive.com news Web site.

Fiji media reported that police believe the assassination plot could be linked to foreign aid groups and neighbouring countries.

Australia and New Zealand have been critical of Bainimarama's regime, calling for a return to democracy.

''Of course the New Zealand government hasn't been involved in any such thing,'' said Clark.

REUTERS SZ KN1221

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