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Fiji military stages coup, fourth in 20 years

Written by: Staff

SUVA, Dec 5 (Reuters) Fiji's military took over running the country in a bloodless overthrow today after confining the elected prime minister to his home in the South Pacific island nation's fourth coup in 20 years.

Military Commander Frank Bainimarama said he had temporarily stepped into President Ratu Josefa Iloilo's role as head of state and dismissed the government of Laisenia Qarase after a power struggle that had simmered all year.

Promising that the takeover would not be permanent, Bainimarama said he had appointed little known Jona Senilagakali Baravilala, a former military doctor and political novice, as interim prime minister before fresh elections are called.

''The stalemate has forced me to step forward and the military has taken over government,'' Bainimarama said, adding that the chief executives of government ministries would run their departments until Baravilala appoints an interim government.

Bainimarama had repeatedly threatened to topple Qarase's government, which won a second five-year term in May, calling it corrupt and too soft on those behind Fiji's last coup in 2000.

''We trust that the new government will lead us into peace and prosperity and mend the ever-widening racial divide which currently besets our multi-cultural nation,'' he said.

LAUGHING STOCK Fiji's three earlier coups, the first in 1987, were racially motivated with indigenous Fijians who make up 51 per cent of the 900,000 population fearing they would lose political control of their nation to minority ethnic Indian Fijians who already dominate the economy.

Qarase told Reuters he was still prime minister.

''I have been removed illegally,'' he said by telephone from inside his home as soldiers blocked off the street outside.

''Fiji has now become a laughing stock in the international arena,'' he said as several hundred supporters gathered behind army barricades, singing hymns and praying.

Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, an Australian, thought Bainimarama's coup would spark a popular uprising that he hoped would be non-violent.

''He doesn't have the support of the government, of the president, of the police, of the churches, or the chiefs of the people of Fiji,'' Hughes told Australian television.

More Reuters SI DB2052

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