Fiji's military leader rules out further talks - report

By Phil Taylor, Nicola Shepheard

Fiji's outspoken military commander claims he has taken control of the Pacific nation and was this morning reported as saying there was no scope for further talks with the prime minister.

The claim from Commodore Frank Bainimarama came as Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase emerged from hiding to return to Suva, saying he was still in charge.

That led Bainimarama to a personal attack last night, telling Auckland's Radio Tarana that if Qarase did not resign, he would "have nowhere to live in Fiji".

This morning, fijilive.com reported he had ruled out further talks with Qarase saying: "I don’t have to meet with him anymore... His time has run out."

He went on to taunt Qarase in the radio interview, dismissing claims that the military was divided. "The only way you can prove that is by testing that - is he ready to test it? He's not the commander. I'm the commander. I'm the one dictating the deadlines, not him."

Bainimarama also dismissed fear of international sanctions because of his actions: "We have to sacrifice something. We are not going to be threatened.

The military has discussed UN pulling us out from our peace-keeping; it would be sad, but we are not discouraged by that, we have to fix our country first. As far as the military's concerned, everything's on track."

As the power struggle continued, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters lent diplomatic weight to Qarase. He told the Herald on Sunday that New Zealand recognised Qarase's rule and that Bainimarama was virtually a dictator.

Speaking from Sydney, Peters condemned Bainimarama's talk of a military-appointed interim government. "Any way you look at it, it's a form of dictatorship he's envisaging."

Peters, who held confidential talks with the military commander last weekend, implied that Bainimarama was already acting as a dictator. "It's not 'Say yes to all my demands or else' - that 'or else' means it's simply a dictatorship."

Referring to the withdrawal of international aid which would likely follow a coup, Peters said: "If you have a makeshift government appointed without any elected mandate, sadly the Fijian people will suffer the consequences."

Fiji's vice-president Joni Mandraiwiwi acted as the middle man yesterday, holding separate talks with both Qarase and Bainimarama's private secretary as the people of Fiji braced for the fourth coup in 20 years. Captain Ben Nalva spent about 40 minutes with Mandraiwiwi while Qarase met with the vice-president for about 20 minutes.

Mood

Qarase yesterday said his trip to the west and north of Fiji was to assess the mood at grass roots level. "It is my belief that the overwhelming majority of the people of Fiji want to preserve our democracy, they want the rule of law to prevail, they want the elected government to run the affairs of our country and are totally opposed to the demands of our military commander."

In another interview with Radio Tarana, Qarase criticised outside agencies for not giving Fiji enough help. "NGOs are always coming down on the throats of government people when we are doing something that is not right to them, but when laws are being broken and democracy is threatened, they tend to take it a bit easy. That's not good enough, we are fighting for our democracy against a dictatorship."

While he said he had no intention of resigning, Qarase conceded that his leadership may be an issue in discussions about the stand-off.

Legal experts say any change of government announced by President Joesefa Iloilo would be illegal unless endorsed by Qarase, as the constitution requires that the president acts on the advice of the prime minister. The president could act on his own discretion in exceptional circumstances if the government was unworkable or incapacitated, but it would be a temporary measure.

Suva markets were quiet yesterday, and shopkeepers reported that rather than the usual Christmas shopping, people were buying only essential items. Travel agencies have been busy taking bookings for flights out of the country after tourism was immediately hit when the political temperature rose last month.

Eliki Saqa, who sells flax products, said his earnings had fallen by two-thirds and he worried about keeping his children at school. "I've got five kids, all at secondary school. After school breaks up, I save for their fees and books for next year, but now I can't do that." His regular trips to the western end of Viti Levu, where most tourists were, usually fetched F$2500 (NZ$2180), but last trip his takings were just F$800 (NZ$700). "I don't think he [Bainimarama] understands what it is like for ordinary people," Saqa told the Herald On Sunday. "I think he is thinking of himself."

However, Frederick MacGoon, another indigenous Fijian working in the market said the commander was "doing a marvellous job".

"We are waiting for the military to move in and set up government." And what about democracy? "That's full of crap. You ask a five year old and he'll give the same answer. If something is wrong, you have to put it right."

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