Fiji PM and Army chief squabble over deadline

By Paul Tait

SUVA - Fiji's extraordinary political crisis dragged on amid confusion over whether a military deadline to overthrow the government had been extended while government ministers scattered across the island nation today.

Defiant military Commander Frank Bainimarama's ultimatum to "clean up" the government lapsed on Friday, passing without incident as the nation stopped to watch a rugby match between the police and army, two of the key protagonists in the crisis.

He and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase are now squabbling over whether the deadline has been extended.

Qarase said it had had been moved to midday on Monday. He said he was prepared to return to discussions brokered this week by New Zealand but called on Bainimarama to make his intentions known publicly.

"It would greatly assist in calming fears and uncertainty among the people and in restoring confidence in the economy, if you could make a public statement that the military has no plans to resort to the use of force or to act outside the law," news website www.fijilive.com quoted Qarase as saying.

Bainimarama said the ultimatum remained in place despite his forces failing to act when the original deadline passed.

"I'm the one that will set the deadline not him, or maybe he wants to be the commander," Bainimarama told The Fiji Sun newspaper today. "I am his boss," he said.

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.

Last week he issued Qarase a list of "non-negotiable" demands and at the same time threatened a "clean-up campaign" against the government if they did not give in. Qarase this week bowed to most of those demands, including suspending the three bills.

But Bainimarama is still not satisfied and accuses Qarase of having people associated with the 2000 coup by armed indigenous nationalists in his government and high public offices.

Fiji has suffered three coups and a bloody but unsuccessful mutiny, during which Bainimarama was almost killed, since 1987.

Bainimarama installed Qarase as interim leader in a bid to put down the 2000 coup but now accuses him of being too soft on those behind it and the failed mutiny linked to it.

Qarase and his cabinet scattered across the South Pacific island nation after Friday's deadline passed.

Government sources said Qarase was staying at a luxury hotel on Vanua Levu, Fiji's second largest island.

"Why are they all moving away to hide?" Bainimarama told The Fiji Times newspaper.

"No one will get a beating or get hurt when the campaign is on," he said.

The capital Suva remained calm today although trucks carrying armed soldiers in full battle gear are still occasionally seen.

Residents stockpiled goods from supermarkets on Thursday and Friday in anticipation of the crisis dragging on and there were long queues at cash machines.

With South Pacific neighbours as well as the United States, Britain and the United Nations all warning him to uphold the law and the constitution, Bainimarama has also said Fiji's military would defend itself against any possible foreign intervention.

He staged a show of force on Thursday by having hundreds of his troops secure strategic parts of Suva in a three-hour night-time exercise.

- REUTERS

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