HONIARA - Prime Minister John Key says Fiji's leader Frank Bainimarama is being "ridiculous" in saying the ultimatum from the Pacific Island Forum over holding democratic elections in Fiji is akin to "a declaration of war".
Forum leaders, including Mr Key, voted unanimously yesterday in Papua New Guinea to suspend Fiji from all forum meetings and events and to exclude it from regional funding and assistance if it didn't set an election date by May 1 and go to the polls by the end of the year.
In an interview on New Zealand-based Hindi station Radio Tarana, Commodore Bainimarama said the ultimatum was an unprecedented step and he singled out Mr Key for special treatment, calling him rude and uninformed.
"I have never come across a situation where a country gives an ultimatum to another country unless, of course, there is a declaration of war," the self-appointed Fiji leader said.
He said he did not feel under pressure to set a date for elections.
Cdre Bainimarama did not attend the forum, saying he had to oversee the recovery from the devastating floods which struck Fiji earlier this month, leaving at least 10 people dead.
Instead he sent interim Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and accused Mr Key of being rude to him.
"I don't think, from the explanation that was given to me by the Attorney General, that he (Mr Key) completely understands what is happening in Fiji because during the discussion yesterday he was very rude to the Attorney-General - he was very personal in his questions to him," he said.
Mr Key said before boarding a plane at Honiara the forum had extended a hand of friendship and wanted Fiji to succeed.
"It was a totally ridiculous statement for Frank Bainimarama to be making," he told NZPA, referring to the "declaration of war" comment.
"Fiji can't be helped unless it wants to help itself. It's up to Fiji to accept the hand of friendship."
On Cdre Bainimarama's comments about bullying from New Zealand and Australia, Mr Key said the reaction was to be expected:
"Neither New Zealand nor Australia has a beef with Fiji. Our position is quite clear - we are fond of the people of Fiji and we want to help that country. "He (Cdre Bainimarama) will want to try and isolate and divide and rule in that regard."
He said it was untrue New Zealand and Australia had dominated the forum meeting, as there was universal agreement. This was backed by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Derek Sikura.
Mr Sayed-Khaiyum has claimed Mr Key said he should be on trial, after Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said he felt like he was on trial while being questioned at the forum.
Mr Key said: "He came to the forum and the purpose of him presenting was for us to ask him questions, and if he thinks I'm not going to ask him the hard questions, he needs to think again."
Asked if he made the statement that Mr Sayed-Khaiyum should be on trial, he said there was an exchange but refused to give details.
He said he did not think he had been "overly-aggressive".
"The people of Fiji will reflect on why the other Pacific Island leaders have decided to take that action. He'll (Bainimarama) need to defend that to the people of Fiji."
Mr Key said the Fiji economy was suffering and forum measures were modest.
The Dominion Post today reported that Cdre Bainimarama told Fijian soldiers that the election process would not be held until 15 months after the race-based electoral system was reformed - no matter how long it took.