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Fiji PM Laisenia Qarase says coup in progress

Written by: Staff
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Suva, Dec 5: Fiji president today dissolved parliament and sanctioned the military to remove embattled Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who immediately imposed sanctions against Fiji's military.

Prime Minister Qarase, who is holed up in his residence in the capital Suva, said the military was staging a coup and he would not resign but would have to be forcibly removed from office.

''I am not going anywhere,'' Mr Qarase told Reuters.

''I am the democratically elected prime minister of the people of Fiji. They will have to move me by force.'' Military commander Frank Bainimarama has repeatedly threatened to topple Qarase's government, which won a second five-year term in May, claiming it is corrupt and soft on those behind Fiji's last coup in 2000.

Troops surrounded Mr Qarase's residence and laid road spikes outside. People could be heard singing hymns inside the house.

Heavily armed soldiers manned roadblocks around Suva and other towns such as Nadi, the tourism hub in the west of the main island of Viti Levu.

Fiji has had three coups since 1987.

''I have been advised this morning that the president of Fiji has acted outside his constitutional powers and supported the removal of the democratic prime minister by the military,'' Mr Clark said in a statement to the New Zealand parliament.

The crisis has alarmed Fiji's South Pacific neighbours, with Australia sending three warships towards Fiji in case it needs to evacuate holidaying nationals. Bainimarama has warned that his soldiers will oppose any foreign intervention.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Mr Qarase telephoned him this morning and asked for Australian intervention.

Howard declined. ''I did not think it was in Australia's national interest to become involved. The possibility of Australian and Fijian troops firing on each other in the streets of Suva was not a prospect that I, for a moment, thought desireable,'' Prime Minister Howard said.

''I exhort those responsible for this coup not to do any physical harm to anybody in the properly elected government of Fiji. There will be long international memories about this if that occurs,'' he told reporters in Canberra.

Sanctions

Australia issued an upgraded travel advisory on Fiji today saying: ''The security situation could deteriorate without warning.

If you are in the capital Suva and concerned for your safety, you should consider leaving. Political tensions could lead to mob violence and civil disorder.'' Mr Clark said New Zealand would implement a series of sanctions against Fiji military officials. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would also impose sanctions on the Fiji military and anyone the military puts into power.

Qarase and Bainimarama have been embroiled in a power struggle all year. The military chief gave Qarase an ultimatum a fortnight ago to accept his demands or resign, but the prime minister has steadfastly refused.

''It's clear that his strategy is to try and intimidate the prime minister and his government into resigning, so he can say 'well look he did it himself','' said Mr Clark.

''The prime minister and his cabinet have shown incredible courage in standing there and saying we are the democratically elected leaders, you are acting unconstitutionally.'' A fourth coup in 20 years would severely damage Fiji's fragile sugar and tourism industries, just like previous upheavals. Fiji tourism bookings were already drying up, said Kyran Curry, primary credit analyst of ratings agency Standard&Poor's, which placed Fiji on credit watch last month after downgrading its ratings.

Today, the Fiji dollar traded as high as 0.5996 US dollars, its highest level since May last year. It has been rising for the past month as the US dollar fell.

Reuters

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