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Clear evidence Fiji army planning coup - Australia

Written by: Staff

SYDNEY, Nov 23: There is clear evidence that Fiji's defiant military chief is planning a coup to overthrow the elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, Australia said today.

Commander Frank Bainimarama this week repeated a threat to remove Qarase's government if it did not drop several planned bills, including one that would grant amnesty to those involved in a 2000 coup.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he had spoken to Qarase and was very concerned that Bainimarama planned to move against the government within two weeks.

''There's clear evidence he's planning a coup in the next couple of weeks, he made a public statement along those lines yesterday,'' Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.

Rumours of a fourth coup since 1987 have swirled through Fiji for the past two months after Bainimarama repeatedly threatened Qarase's government.

On Tuesday Bainimarama issued Qarase's government a list of demands he described as ''non-negotiable'', including dropping the amnesty bill, saying he expected the demands to be met by the time he returned from a two-week trip to New Zealand.

''He still seems intent on returning to Fiji and at some point overthrowing through military means the elected government of Fiji,'' Downer said.

Bainimarama's threats alarmed Australia, the major regional power, which sent two warships towards Fiji this month in case it needed to evacuate several thousand nationals holidaying there.


 Local media reported that the capital, Suva, was tense today after Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, an Australian, was close to laying sedition charges against Bainimarama over his threats to remove Qarase. Bainimarama's list of demands includes Hughes's removal.

Fiji's two coups in 1987 and the 2000 coup led by armed indigenous nationalists were largely racially motivated.

Indigenous Fijians who make up about 51 per cent of the 900,000 population fear that the economic might of ethnic Indians who dominate the fragile tourism- and sugar-based economy will be matched by political clout.

Both Qarase and Bainimarama have warned that another coup would be disastrous for Fiji. Qarase softened his stand this month by saying he would modify the amnesty bill but Bainimarama has continued to ratchet up the pressure.

Bainimarama installed Qarase as interim leader in a bid to quell the 2000 coup but now believes he is too soft on those behind that coup and a bloody but unsuccessful mutiny attempt that was linked to it in November 2000.

Bainimarama barely escaped the mutiny with his life, fleeing down a heavily wooded hillside from his military headquarters.

Qarase won free elections in 2001 and was re-elected to a second five-year term in May, but Bainimarama is unhappy that some people linked to the 2000 coup are still serving in government and in other public offices.

Downer said he had raised the possibility with Qarase of invoking the ''Biketawa Declaration'' to bring together Pacific Islands Forum foreign ministers to seek a solution to the impasse.

''He seemed sympathetic to that idea, whereas in the past he's been a bit resistant to go down that track,'' Downer said.


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