Sun, Nov 05, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Fiji's leader backs down

AGENCIES , SUVA

Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, center, speaks to international media in Suva yesterday after he announced he would change a contentious piece of legislation that has fueled coup fears.

PHOTO: AP

Fiji's prime minister appeared to bow to threats from the military when he said yesterday that a key amnesty provision had been cut from proposed legislation amid a standoff which has raised fears of a coup.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said the bill had been changed to remove amnesties for plotters involved in a 2000 coup, a key demand of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who threatened to force the government out if it kept the clause.

"I want to say that quite categorically now that there is no longer an amnesty provision in the new bill. It is a changed bill, substantially changed," he told reporters in the capital.

The bill containing the amnesty provision was one of two pieces of legislation that Bainimarama had warned Qarase three weeks ago to drop or be removed from office.

The concession came as Bainimarama returned to Fiji from a visit to the country's troops in the Middle East.

His arrival had been seen as another potential flash point in the dispute between the military and government.

It also came a day after acting military chief Captain Esala Telani met with Qarase for talks on the crisis, opening direct communications between the two sides and promising the armed forces had no plans for a coup.

The standoff had raised fears of a fourth coup in the South Pacific nation since 1987, although both Qarase and the military have played down the risk of more upheaval.

Qarase denied he had dropped the amnesty clause to appease the military, saying it had been cut because of constitutional concerns.

Police, who are investigating whether Bainimarama's threat to remove Qarase was seditious, have said they want to talk to the commander but did not plan to detain him immediately.

Bainimarama, who will meet senior officers today, was taken out a back gate surrounded by armed troops after arriving in the western city of Nadi and was driven to Suva.

"We saw fit to go out there and protect the commander," military spokesman Major Nuemi Leweni said.

Qarase said he hoped to have talks with Bainimarama early this week before a meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs.

The council, representing Fiji's 14 provinces run by chiefs, groups the nation's ultimate powerbrokers who have been called to find a solution to the crisis.

The standoff between Qarase and Bainimarama, who installed Qarase as interim leader in the middle of the 2000 coup, has rattled Fiji and alarmed neighbors Australia and New Zealand, as well as the US and Britain.

Bainimarama accuses Qarase's government, re-elected in May for a second five-year term, of being too soft on those behind the 2000 coup.

Trouble still looms over the second piece of legislation, the "Qoliqoli Bill" that would enshrine indigenous ownership of coastal land that is currently owned by the government.

Bainimarama fears the bill will increase uncertainty over the leases on coastal land often taken up by resorts and hotels, thereby potentially damaging the economy.

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