Tue, Jan 17, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Meeting between Fiji's PM and army chief eases fears


Fiji's outspoken armed forces chief and the prime minister he recently threatened to topple will keep trying to heal their rift after meeting yesterday, an army spokesman and the vice president said, easing fears of a second coup in six years.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase met military commander Frank Bainimarama in a bid to resolve tensions that threatened to again plunge the troubled South Pacific island nation into political turmoil.

Neither Qarase nor Bainimarama spoke to reporters after the meeting with a mediator -- Fiji's acting President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi -- at the colonial-era Government House overlooking the harbor of the capital, Suva.

In a statement, Madraiwiwi said Bainimarama agreed in future to tell Qarase of his criticisms before going public with them.

"There was a frank exchange of views between the parties," the statement said. "Both recognized the need to put the national interest first."

Madraiwiwi, a former judge and high-ranking Fijian traditional chief, said the two powerful leaders had agreed to re-establish "regular channels of communication between the government and the military."

In a major concession to Bainimarama, Qarase agreed to review controversial legislation that could see pardons granted to hundreds of people convicted in a 2000 coup that toppled Fiji's first ethnic Indian-led government. He also agreed to review other legislation Bainimarama had criticized as being too pro-indigenous Fijian.

Army spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni said that Bainimarama would stay in his position, and that he and Qarase have "agreed to carry on talking about how to settle their differences."

Before the meeting, Qarase said he was confident the talks would patch the rift between his nationalist administration and Bainimarama.

Fears of another coup in Fiji have been rife since Bainimarama threatened a week ago to topple the government, accusing it of being too lenient toward people involved in a 2000 coup by pushing through legislation that could lead to their pardon.

But Qarase, entering the meeting, said there was no danger of another rebellion.

"In the meantime all is well," he said. "The military and the police have told us that the security situation is normal."

Nearly 800 people have been convicted of taking part in the 2000 coup -- a move to wrest back political power from ethnic Indians, who make up about 44 percent of the 893,000 people in Fiji.

Over the weekend, Bainimarama told Fiji media that Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka, a senior officer whom he fired last week and who has since resigned from the army, had colluded with government officials in a bid to remove him.

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