Tue, Nov 07, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Australia, New Zealand reinforce embassies in Fiji

SILLY AND DAFT Amid fears of a coup, a Fijian commander accused regional powers of breaching sovereignty and threatening security in the island nation

AGENCIES , SUVA

Fiji's political crisis grew into a regional row yesterday as Australia and New Zealand said they had reinforced their embassies over fears of a possible coup, but Canberra rejected accusations it had flown in mercenaries.

Fiji Land Force Commander Colonel Pita Driti angrily accused Australia of breaching sovereignty and threatening security by sending an unspecified number of police whom he described as mercenaries along with 400kg of "unexplained" equipment.

Driti suggested the Australian police may have brought arms with them, saying they did not go through normal customs and immigration procedures and were escorted from the airport by local police.

Australia denied the claim, but Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said extra staff were flown to Fiji last Friday with equipment to communicate with two warships sent towards Fiji.

Fiji's Police Commander Andrew Hughes, who is Australian, described the claims as false.

"Let me state quite categorically: I have not asked for nor received any reinforcements from Australia, New Zealand or anywhere else," Hughes told reporters.

"I have not received any equipment, including arms and ammunition, from Australia, New Zealand or anywhere else."

Hughes added that he could not envisage asking for help from the Australian or New Zealand police.

"My guys are doing everything that's necessary at this point, so I have no need for Australian or New Zealand police," he said.

Hughes has come under attack from the military after saying sedition charges were being considered against military commander Voreqe Bainimarama, who has repeatedly threatened to force the government to resign.

Australia and New Zealand have been rattled by a standoff between Fiji's military and government, which has raised fears of a fourth coup in 20 years.

In rare public comments, Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi said the country must do all it can to "retreat from the abyss."

"These are not totally uncharted waters. Recent events merely remind us that we have yet to leave those stormy seas," he said in a Remembrance Day address.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark reacted angrily to criticism of the decision to send four extra police officers to boost security at the New Zealand High Commission in Suva, describing Driti's comments as "silly" and "daft."

Australia was accused at a Pacific summit in Fiji last month of being a regional bully by linking its billion-dollar aid program to good governance, but Clark is usually seen as a more moderate voice in the region.

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