Fijian PM dodges military roadblock as Army seize weapons

By Phil Taylor

The Fijian Prime Minister was evacuated by helicopter after the military set up a roadblock near where he was speaking in a regional town.

Fijilive.com reported that PM Laisenia Qarase left after the roadblock was set up at the Sawani Police Post on the road between Suva and the province of Naitasiri.

He is insisting that he remains in command of the country despite moves by the military to seize guns from police posts around Suva.

Fijian troops entered key police installations around the capital and removed weapons on Monday amid fears of an immiment coup.

Truckloads of heavily armed troops arrived at the Suva headquarters of the police tactical response unit -- the only armed police group -- and shortly after began removing weapons from the armoury. Across town, soldiers entered another police armoury.

"It is clear Fiji is on the brink of a coup," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told his parliament.

Fiji's military chief, Commander Frank Bainimarama, has threatened to topple Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's government, claiming it is corrupt, but says it will be a peaceful takeover.

Qarase told Fijian radio on Monday morning that he remained in control and Fiji's Acting Police Commissioner Moses Driver said the military had not taken control of the country.

"Fiji is not under martial law nor is the executive branch incapacitated," Driver told a news conference in Suva. "I have not come up with the conclusion that a coup d'etat is in place."

"There will be no violent confrontation with the military, they are armed we are not armed," he said.

Fiji has suffered three coups since 1987.

Qarase and Bainimarama have been embroiled in a power struggle all year. Bainimarama installed Qarase as interim leader after declaring martial law to put down Fiji's last coup in 2000, but now accuses him of being too soft on the coup plotters.

Downer said the military was trying to "slowly take control" as there was a split in its ranks over whether to stage a coup.

"They are now reaching a point, the military, where they are trying to persuade the prime minister to stand down without actually mounting a coup," Downer earlier told Australian radio.

"My guess is that within the military there is a fair bit of resistance to these tactics and quite a lot of resistance to a coup. There isn't an inclination to mutiny against the commander, so it's a torturously complicated situation."

A military spokesman was not returning phone calls.

"Point of No Return," the Fiji Sun newspaper said on its front page. It called on the military to end the uncertainty because "the whole nation is engulfed in fear".

"I think fear has started to emerge with the public at large," said acting police commissioner Driver.

The Fiji Daily Post said Bainimarama had drawn up a 13-member interim cabinet to be led by an unidentified member of Qarase's government as interim premier.

It quoted unidentified sources as saying that the list included two former prime ministers and that Bainimarama had chosen a portfolio for himself.

Bainimarama told Fiji television on Sunday that he expected Qarase's government, re-elected in May for a second five-year term, to "give in peacefully" and leave office.

Qarase in turn has called an emergency cabinet meeting for Tuesday and has refused to bow to Bainimarama's threats.

Fiji's latest political crisis has alarmed its South Pacific neighbours, with Australia sending three naval ships to the area in case it needs to evacuate holidaying nationals. Bainimarama has said his military would oppose any foreign intervention.

The United States, Britain and the United Nations have all warned Bainimarama not to attempt to take over the government, with concerns that another coup would devastate the fragile local economy based on tourism and sugar.

- REUTERS, NZHERALD STAFF

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