Fiji: Military commander declares he's taken over power

South Pacific nation's fourth coup in less than two decades.

bainimarama 88 (photo credit: )
bainimarama 88
(photo credit: )
Fiji's military commander announced Tuesday he had taken control of the country from the elected government, confirming the South Pacific nation's fourth coup in less than two decades. "As of 6 o'clock this evening, the military has taken over the government, has executive authority and the running of this country," Commodore Frank Bainimarama told a news conference. Bainimarama said he had invoked special powers under the constitution to assume some powers of the president, and was using them to dismiss Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase from office and appoint an interim replacement. He said he would surrender presidential powers next week, and would ask the country's Great Council of Chiefs to restore them to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who he expected would then appoint a full interim government. Elections to restore democracy would follow sometime after that, he said. Qarase said earlier he was under effective house arrest, and that he was powerless to stop the military takeover. Armed troops surrounded Qarase's house Tuesday and manned check points at government buildings and other points throughout the capital, Suva. Bainimarama has been threatening to "clean up" Qarase's government for weeks, and in recent days demanded that Qarase resign or be ousted. "What they want to do, they have the power to do it, the firepower to do it," Qarase said earlier Tuesday. "If they want to carry out an illegal act ... that is their choice, but I'm not going to resign." The slow-coming takeover has already been condemned internationally. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced in Parliament earlier Tuesday that defense ties with Fiji were being severed and officers and their families from that country would be banned. Bainimarama is believed to have children studying in New Zealand. "This is an outrage what is happening in Fiji today," she told reporters in Wellington, the capital. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would impose similar conditions if it was confirmed Qarase had been removed, adding that two international groups - the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies and the South Pacific Forum - would consider suspending Fiji. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday Qarase had asked Canberra to send troops to try to prevent the coup, but that he had rejected the request. "The possibility of Australian and Fijian troops firing on each other in the streets of Suva was not a prospect that I for a moment thought desirable," Howard told a news conference in Canberra. Bainimarama has warned any foreign intervention would be fiercely opposed by the Fiji military. About a half-dozen ministers were holed up with Qarase in his house - a gesture that the government was clinging to power. Outside, about 70 supporters gathered to sing hymns and say prayers. "Forgive these people for their deeds," they prayed. Fiji, with about 900,000 people, is among the richest and most developed nations in the South Pacific, attracting up to 400,000 tourists a year to resorts built on idyllic beaches mostly in the country's west, away from Suva. The coup is the fourth in 19 years for Fiji, which has lurched from one political crisis to the next since the military twice grabbed power in 1987 to ensure political supremacy for indigenous Fijians among a population that includes a large ethnic Indian minority. Gunmen angry those advantages were being eroded seized Parliament in a 2000 coup that brought Qarase, a moderate nationalist, to power in a deal brokered by Bainimarama. Qarase has since won two elections. Bainimarama and Qarase have long since fallen out. Bainimarama wants the government to kill legislation that would pardon conspirators in the 2000 coup, and quash other bills he says unfairly favor indigenous Fijians, and to drop sedition investigations into senior military officers. Qarase had offered to suspend the contentious bills, but says he cannot agree to any demands that go outside the law.