Key Points:

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has spoken to Fiji's prime minister but will not say if the leader of the troubled Pacific nation asked for military help in the event of a military coup.

Mr Howard this morning issued a statement saying Australia strongly supports the elected Fijian government of Laisenia Qarase and would view any moves to unseat it with the utmost seriousness.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has called on Fiji's military chief Frank Bainimarama to accept the decision of the country's government to sack him and step down.

Senior military leaders had refused a presidential decision to sack their commander.

Mr Qarase and Mr Howard spoke by telephone on the matter last night but would not comment when journalists asked today if Mr Qarase had asked for military assistance.

Mr Howard said there had been a number of contacts between Australian military figures and Commander Bainimarama.

"We have initiated a number of contacts at a military to military level with the leader of the Fijian Defence Force, encouraging him to respect the constitution of that country," Mr Howard said.

"I spoke last night to the New Zealand prime minister. She shares my concern and is very anxious that everything be done to drive home to the Fijian military the total rejection by the region of any attempt at military action to overturn the duly elected government of that country."

Armed troops

Armed troops were guarding Suva's waterfront as the nation's political and security leaders held meetings amid fears of a military coup.

Commander Bainimarama has threatened to force Mr Qarase to resign unless he drops two contentious bills, one which will offer amnesty to some of those involved in a coup in 2000.

Fijian political leaders failed on Tuesday to remove the outspoken military commander, who is currently visiting troops in the Middle East, with soldiers staging exercises around the capital Suva and sealing the main army barracks.

"I'll be back to see that Qarase and his cronies step down," Bainimarama told the Fiji Sun newspaper on Wednesday.

"Qarase is trying to weaken the army by trying to remove me. If he succeeds then there will be no one to monitor them and imagine how corrupt it is going to be."

Bainimarama said that while the leader of the 2000 coup, failed businessman George Speight, was in prison those that backed him were now in parliament.

He said he regretted appointing Qarase as interim prime minister following the 2000 coup. Qarase has since won two free elections.

"He betrayed our trust when he went back to team up with the very people who caused the political instability of 2000," Bainimarama said.

Foreign reaction

Helen Clark has urged Bainimarama to step down.

>Clark calls on Fiji military chief to resign

She 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."

Mr John Howard said Canberra would view a coup with "the utmost seriousness".

He said Australia would work with its neighbours in the region, including New Zealand, should the situation worsen.

"Australia would view any extra-constitutional moves in Fiji with the utmost seriousness and is taking steps to be prepared to respond appropriately to possible developments," he said.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also warned of the dangers of another military coup.

"We are very concerned about the possibly of a coup in Fiji, and if that happens, not only would it be deeply regrettable that yet again the democratic processes of Fiji had collapsed, but of course it would be devastating for the Fijian tourism industry and therefore its economy," Mr Downer told ABC Radio today.

Mr Downer said Australia was preparing warships to help Australians evacuate from Fiji if needed, but said the ships would not be used as a military force.

The United States issued a warning on Tuesday to Fiji's military, saying it could suspend aid if troops do not respect constitutional processes and the rule of law.

"We urge Fiji's military leadership to refrain from any actions that could be seen as a provocation or threat to the democratically elected government," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.

"Any action by the military to the contrary would severely affect Fiji's stability and its political and economic development. It would also negatively affect Fiji's relations with the United States and other countries and could lead to a suspension of United States assistance to Fiji."

Ammunition

Troops were on Suva's waterfront in readiness to receive 7.5 tonnes of ammunition shipped from South Korea. Fijian police have refused to release the ammunition until the military guarantees it will not be used against the government.

"There is nothing to be alarmed about," military spokesperson Major Neumi Leweni said, adding the army routinely guarded shipments of ammunition.

However, Fiji's Australian police commissioner earlier said he would not release the ammunition until the military assured the nation it would not be used to overthrow the government.

Hughes said acting commander Captain Esala Teleni had given him that assurance yesterday but had pulled out of a joint press conference this morning.

"I haven't issued a licence (to release the ammunition) as yet," Hughes said.
"Once we've carried out what we've agreed, and that was what I thought was quite clear yesterday, I'll reconsider."

Fiji has suffered three coups and a failed mutiny since 1987.

The coups have been racially fuelled, with indigenous Fijians fearful of losing political control of their island nation to ethnic Indian Fijians, who dominate the economy.

Suva residents were nervous today that Fiji was about to be rocked by further instability, with people staying away from the city's open air market and worried parents accompanying children to school to sit exams.

"These people are playing around with the future of our kids, who will go into their exams under stress - it's just not good enough," Saten Prasad, a parent said.


Political events in Fiji since independence:

* 1970: Fiji attains independence from Britain.

* 1987: Multi-racial government led by Fiji Labour Party overthrown by army officer Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka staged a second coup the same year against the new administration.

* 1990: A new constitution is established favouring indigenous Fijians over ethnic Indians and other races.

* 1992: Rabuka becomes prime minister after elections.

* 1997: New constitution espousing racial equality implemented.

* 1999: Fiji Labour Party wins elections; Mahendra Chaudhry becomes first Indo-Fijian prime minister.

* 2000: Rebel soldiers fronted by George Speight take government hostage for 56 days. Military ends coup; Speight and collaborators arrested. Laisenia Qarase appointed interim prime minister.

* 2001: Qarase's SDL party wins elections, forms coalition government.

* 2006:
May: Qarase wins elections.
October: Military Commander Frank Bainimarama threatens to force the government's resignation if it fails to drop legislation he doesn't like.
October 31: Qarase tries and fails to oust Bainimarama.
November 1: Australia and US warn military against staging a coup.

- REUTERS / AAP