SUVA, Fiji, Oct 28: Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase vowed today to deal with his defiant army chief, saying his powerful rival's threats to force the recently re-elected government to resign were destabilising the country.
A showdown is looming between Qarase and Commander Frank Bainimarama who returns next week after visiting Fijian troops in the West Asia.
Bainimarama, who appointed Qarase as interim leader after declaring martial law to end a coup by armed nationalists in May 2000, gave Qarase a three-week ultimatum on Octobter 17 to drop two controversial bills or he would be forced to resign.
''We are taking them seriously and obviously we'll have to deal with him,'' Qarase said of the threats.
''I cannot disclose to the media what I intend to do,'' he told Reuters.
Fiji's two main cities, the tourism hub of Nadi and the capital Suva, were both calm today but the standoff has embarrassed Fiji at a time when it was hosting a regional forum.
Neighbours Australia and New Zealand are worried about the possibility of more upheaval, and the European Union has said the army must be subordinate to the government which won free and fair elections in May. Washington has warned its citizens ''to be aware that civil-military unrest in November is possible''.
Angry at what he believes is the lenient treatment of those behind the 2000 coup and a bloody attempted army mutiny six months later, Bainimarama has repeatedly threatened to oust Qarase's largely indigenous government.
Fiji has suffered three coups and a mutiny since 1987.
''We just can't afford another one, it would be a total disaster,'' Qarase said.
PRESIDENT'S POOR HEALTH
Under Fiji's multiracial constitution, only President Ratu Josefa Iloilo has the power to sack Bainimarama. But Iloilo is in his 80s and in failing health and is rarely seen in public. The military in turn is angry over attempts to force Iloilo, seen by many as a lame-duck president, to step aside.
''Those who said that he is ineffective are blatantly disrespectful and any challenge to his authority is also a challenge to the constitutional role of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces,'' army spokesman Major Neumi Leweni said.
Qarase said in January that it was up to Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Iloilo's most likely successor, to sort out the impasse with Bainimarama if Iloilo could not.
Qarase said he did not know exactly when Bainimarama would return but thought it would be some time next week, slightly earlier than expected.
Fiji police have said that they will talk to Bainimarama when he returns, adding another potential element to the standoff.
Past political instability has mainly stemmed from divisions between indigenous Fijians who fear losing political power and ethnic Indians who dominate the tourism- and sugar-led economy.
Bainimarama is angry with proposed legislation that would grant amnesty to some participants in the 2000 coup and another bill that would enshrine indigenous ownership of coastal land, which he fears would hurt an already hard-hit tourism industry.
The army is also angry over links between a former official from Qarase's political party and Australian conman Peter Foster, who was arrested in Fiji this week.
Qarase said Bainimarama's repeated calls for him to step down were destabilising the country.
''They are keeping investors away, or at the very least making them think twice about coming to Fiji,'' he said.