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Hymn singing but no bullets in Fiji's latest coup

Written by: Staff
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SUVA, Dec 5 (Reuters) Fiji's fourth coup in 20 years was played out in a quiet suburban backstreet today rather than the corridors of power, accompanied by hymn singing instead of the sound of gunfire.

After weeks of fear and threats, Fiji's military chief Commander Frank Bainimarama finally acted against the government of Prime Minister Laiseina Qarase, locking him in his own home and then slowly squeezing him from office in a bloodless coup.

Modern Fiji is a largely peaceful and deeply religious island nation, viewed as a tropical paradise by the hundreds of thousands of tourists who relax on its golden beaches each year.

But its people are descendants of fierce warrior tribes who roasted their enemies alive and modern Fiji is full of contradictions.

Its record as a constitutional democracy is scarred by two military coups in 1987, another in 2000 by armed indigenous nationalists and a failed but bloody attempted military mutiny linked to it later the same year.

Now it has another military overthrow.

There were lots of guns as Bainimarama's soldiers blockaded Qarase's streets, but few of them were loaded.

There were also confrontations when his troops tried to force their way into Qarase's residence. But there was also hymn singing as Fijian women sat on grass mats laid on the roadway behind the barricades just feet from the armed soldiers.

Troops came three times to Qarase's home in Richards Road, a posh but quiet Suva street of executive homes, today.

They left twice, first with the keys to the prime minister's office and then with his two official vehicles as they slowly isolated him.

The third time they blocked off the whole street and stayed.

OBLIVIOUS TO HIGH DRAMA Fiji's sky blue flag with Britain's Union Jack hung limply from a flagpole above a frangipani tree in Qarase's lush tropical front garden on a windless, hot day.

Curious neighbours looked over their fences at the dozens of troops and media blocking their tiny winding street as Qarase desperately tried to save his recently re-elected government.

Two young girls played in the house next door and smiled at soldiers as a dog chased a cat around their garden, oblivious to the high drama being played out over their front fence.

Religious leaders came to pray with their prime minister but left without argument when soldiers denied them entry.

Bainimarama had been threatening all year to remove Qarase.

He issued him a deadline of last Friday, but the ultimatum came and went as the rugby-mad nation stopped to watch an annual match between police and army sides.

Suva residents simply shrugged and smiled, saying the coup was being run on ''Fiji time''.

The seeds of today's coup were sown in the bloody events of 2000, when Bainimarama escaped down a heavily wooded hillside from his barracks overlooking Suva as elite soldiers linked to the May 2000 coup turned against him and tried to kill him.

He had appointed Qarase as interim leader to put down the 2000 coup but now accuses him of being too soft on those behind it after he backed a bill that would have granted them amnesties.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark says the events of 2000 left Bainimarama deeply scarred and bitter.

Despite those scars and the many threats, Bainimarama's coup was completed without a shot, carried out by smiling soldiers in a typically Fijian putsch.

REUTERS PDM PM1505

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