Fiji military play rugby amidst confusion over coup

SUVA - The Fijian Army is taking on arch-rivals the Police in the much-anticipated annual Sukuna Bowl rugby clash, rather than stage a coup.

Hundreds of Fijians have gathered to watch the clash even as both the Government and military manoeuvre in the coup crisis.

To make matters even more surreal, the Government of Fiji says it has been given an extended deadline until Monday or face a coup - but the military has denied it.

Fiji's military chief, Commmodore Frank Bainimarama, maintained his threat today to stage a coup if the government failed to meet his demands for a change, but added he would not act until after the annual military versus police rugby game in Suva.

A relaxed looking Bainimarama attended the games this afternoon, watching his Army Golden Oldies beat the Police Over-40s, 24-16. Then he took part in the celebrations, flanked by the vice-president of Fiji, Joni Madraiwiwi and Acting Police Commissioner Moses Driver.

A colourful crowd of around 5,000 predominantly ethnic Fijians turned up for the games and brass band demonstrations.

Away from the Sukuna Bowl celebrations, embattled Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said he had been informed the military had extended its deadline to Monday for the government to meet its demands or be toppled.

"I have been informed that the new deadline is Monday middday," Qarase told Reuters in a telephone interview.

But Cdr Bainimarama has denied he has extended the deadline.

Qarase told Fiji's FM96 that he and his government are in control but in hiding in secret locations.

"I am accessible by phone though. We (Cabinet ministers) had plans not to be together in this very difficult time," Qarase was quoted on fijivillage.com as saying.

"But we are in total control of Government."

Military Commander Frank Bainimarama gave Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase a 24-hour ultimatum yesterday to clean up his government or face a coup, despite winning a series of concessions from the prime minister.

"I maintain my demands and the deadline still stands and I will make a commitment to my stand after the rugby match," Bainimarama told Fijian media.

"When I will do something, I will let the people know."

Bainimarama is scheduled to attend the rugby game starting at 4pm (5pm NZT) and hundreds of Fijians have started arriving at the stadium for the game.

Cdr Bainimarama has told fijivillage.com that now the deadline has passed he intends to begin a "clean up" campaign of Government and he will now decide what steps to take.

According to fijivillage.com: "He also added that the military will host the Police tonight at the Officers Mess and have a few bowls of grog in what he believes is the only way that will bring the two forces together."

The Sukuna Bowl is a high-profile sporting event in Fiji, which the police have won for the last three years.

The Fijian capital Suva was tense, but quiet today as residents waited anxiously to see if the defiant military chief would stage Fiji's fourth coup in 20 years.

Bainimarama has repeatedly threatened to remove Qarase's government unless it drops three pieces of legislation, including a bill that would grant amnesty to those involved in a 2000 coup.

Qarase suspended the bills yesterday pending a review, after which he could withdraw them completely.

But his concessions were not enough for Bainimarama, who still wants Qarase to remove senior government and public service figures he says were connected to the 2000 coup.

Troops staged a three-hour show of force yesterday by securing parts of the capital in an early morning exercise.

Qarase said today that he was considering asking for foreign intervention to end the long-running political crisis, adding he believed his military chief was mentally unstable.

"We are dealing with somebody who is completely deranged and unstable so that's part of the problem," he told Fijian radio.

"Nobody knows what he wants...we're just keeping our fingers crossed that he won't go ahead. He's got all the firepower and the rest of the population has got nothing," he said.

"Yesterday in the statement I issued publicly I did say there was no consideration of outside intervention, but things are developing and I will have to weigh the options."

Prime Minister Helen Clark says the coup threatening Fiji "doesn't make any sense" and is appealing to its military chief to protect his reputation and step back from plunging the country into turmoil.

"[Commodore] Frank Bainimarama was very well thought of after the 2000 coup when he himself took a very strong position against the coupsters who tried to kill him, and he barely escaped with his life," she told reporters this afternoon outside her Mt Eden home.

"Now why would he want to destroy his reputation now, as the man who took Fiji down again?

"This doesn't make any sense and we say to the Commander, there is still time to restore your reputation, engage with the [Fiji] Government as you strongly implied you would at the meeting at Government House in Wellington."

Helen Clark said that in anticipation of "an appalling thing happening", it seemed that many people had cleared out of Suva, although there had by mid-afternoon not yet been any reports of soldiers in the streets.

"I'm told the streets are very very quiet, a lot of businesses are closed, the Prime Minister [Laisenia Qarase] is not in town, and [there is] a sports event between the police and military _ as bizarre as that may seem _ which people have gone off to."
Asked what action New Zealand may take to safeguard or evacuate its nationals, Helen Clark ruled out any military or police intervention but said the Government had been talking for some time with Australia about "contingency arrangements" which she refrained from disclosing.

"The focus of our attention has been in trying to facilitate a way through this." she said.

"Clearly the Government of Fiji left the meeting in Wellington with the attitude that something could be done; the Commander went away and took a completely different view. Our focus has been on trying to prevent what we think will be a disaster for Fiji."

Australia has sent three naval ships towards Fiji to evacuate its citizens in the event of a coup.

An Australian army helicopter on one of the ships crashed into the sea south of Fiji late on Wednesday, killing one Australian soldier and fanning the Fiji military's fears of foreign intervention.

Pacific Island Forum foreign ministers are meeting in Sydney today to discuss the crisis under the same regional pact that enabled Australia to lead a mission into the Solomon Islands.

Australia, Britain and New Zealand have advised their nationals against travelling to Fiji and the UN Security Council has expressed concern.

Two Australian warships, HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Success, continue to sit in waters near Fiji awaiting any full scale evacuation.

The frigate HMAS Newcastle, which had also been in the area, is now on its way to Noumea carrying the body of the Australian pilot who died Wednesday's Black Hawk helicopter crash aboard the Kanimbla.

Seven of the injured are also aboard. From Noumea, an RAAF C-130 Hercules will bring them back to Australia, arriving tomorrow night.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says he's uncertain whether a threatened coup will go ahead in Fiji, as he prepares for crisis talks with his regional counterparts.

Mr Downer will is attending a meeting of Pacific Forum foreign ministers in Sydney amid a looming deadline set by Fiji's military for the government to meet a series of demands.

Mr Downer said he had no indication of whether the commander would go ahead with his latest threat.

"We don't know whether he will. He's obviously laid down a deadline and he's done that before," he told ABC radio.

"I simply don't know what he will do when the time comes.

"Every effort has been made to try to conciliate him and try to talk him out of mounting a coup, to explain to him that there will be consequences for Fiji in terms of its international relationships."

Mr Downer agreed that Commodore Bainimarama had shown scant interest in backing down.

"The prime minister of Fiji, democratically elected not once but twice ... he's making concessions to a military commander who's been elected by nobody who ... is making demands out of the barrel of a gun, so it is very disturbing," he said.

- REUTERS, AAP, NZHERALD STAFF

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