PM leading Fiji to bloodshed, says military chief Bainimarama [+audio, video]

By Ruth Berry, Agencies

Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's refusal to buckle to military demands is leading the country towards bloodshed, the country's military commander Frank Bainimarama says.

Mr Bainamarama said today he was prepared to continue talking to the government, but reiterated it needed to accede to his demands.

That included dumping contentious legislation that would give amnesty to some of those involved in the 2000 coup and key figures in the government stepping down.

"The last thing we want to do is have violence, the last thing we want to do is have bloodshed, but Qarase is pointing us in that direction," he said on Radio New Zealand.

"The fact that he does not want to accede to our request, the fact that he does not want to resign and his call for the meeting of the great council of chiefs means to the military that he has put us in a situation where there is going to be bloodshed and violence."

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Wellington has plans to evacuate New Zealanders from Fiji if the stand-off erupts into hostilities.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the Government was "looking at having every contingency ready" for an evacuation if need be.

He would not go into details, but it is likely the armed forces have been put on stand-by. Chartered commercial planes might be used.

Between 3500 and 7000 New Zealanders are on holiday in Fiji at any given time.

Australian warships have been placed on stand-by in case its nationals have to be evacuated.

The Fiji military yesterday refused to accept the appointment of a new commander and also defied a police order and removed seven tonnes of ammunition sitting on a Suva wharf. Military heads refused to take Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes' calls, further heightening tensions.

There was speculation in Fiji yesterday that Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase might resign.

But late yesterday he declared "emphatically that there is absolutely no question of me resigning" and outlined a series of "inappropriate and illegitimate actions" taken by Commodore Bainimarama.

Mr Qarase is to ask the Great Council of Chiefs to convene a special meeting in the hope they could help resolve the conflict.

Mediate

The council, comprising the most senior chiefs in the country, has a constitutional role and appoints the President and has been called on to mediate in Fiji's past coups.

Commodore Bainimarama is in the Middle East, but is expected back on Sunday or early next week, a military spokesman said today.

Three weeks ago Commodore Bainimarama warned the Government would have to resign if it refused to dump controversial legislation opposed by the armed forces - including a bill which would offer an amnesty to former 2002 coup supporters.

Mr Qarase said he had exercised "great patience" in response to the commander's string of threats, which were under police investigation.

He was ready to engage in open dialogue with the commander "with a view to finding resolutions that serve the best interests of Fiji".

He stressed, however, that the Army was under the control of the Government and "the rule of law must prevail".

Mr Peters said the Government was "deeply concerned" about the developments and reiterated Prime Minister Helen Clark's call for Commodore Bainimarama to stand down.

Helen Clark said Fiji's Government was legitimately elected and appeared to have followed proper process in its bid to oust the outspoken military chief.

"The strong advice we have is the commander must himself follow the Fiji constitution," she said.

"One would have thought that if the President seeks to suspend him then those orders from a legitimate government should be followed."

Helen Clark spoke to Australian Prime Minister John Howard about the crisis on Tuesday night.

Mr Howard has refused to say whether military help had been sought by the Fijian Government, but Mr Peters said the Government here had received no such request.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry yesterday issued a renewed travel advisory for Fiji, but did not advise holidaymakers to abandon travel plans.

"Although the situation is currently calm, this could change with little warning."

New Zealanders planning to visit Fiji should monitor the media and the ministry's "safe travel" website for updates, it said.

Fiji police head Andrew Hughes said the military's decision to seize the seven tonnes of ammunition was "unprofessional" and under investigation as he had not issued the necessary licence.

"They've broken the law."

Military Land Force commander Colonel Pita Driti told Fijilive.com: "There will not be another coup. We will stick by our words."

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