Sat, Nov 25, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Police ready to arrest Fiji army leader

ULTIMATUM The military commander demanded the government replace all officials involved in a 2000 coup, threatening to lead a 'clean-up campaign'


Police said they are ready to arrest Fiji's military commander, charging him with sedition for threatening the government, further inflaming tensions in the South Pacific country that nearby Australia warned could be on the verge of another coup.

Fiji's police commissioner, Australian Andrew Hughes, said he was waiting for approval from public prosecutors to lay charges against Commodore Frank Bainimarama for seditious remarks against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

Charges could come within the next week, he said.

"We're right on the brink of it," Hughes told a news conference on Thursday. "We're not going to be delayed on this."

Bainimarama was on a visit to New Zealand, and didn't immediately comment.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said there was evidence that Bainimarama was planning a coup.

"He still seems intent on returning to Fiji and, at some point, overthrowing, through military means, the elected government of Fiji," Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. He didn't elaborate on the evidence.

"At this stage we don't seem to be having much success in talking Commodore Bainimarama out of his plans," Downer said.

Bainimarama has been locked in a tense standoff with Qarase's government for the past 20 months, but has repeatedly denied he is planning a coup.

Among demands the military chief has issued to Qarase is the dropping of three pieces of contentious legislation, including one that would grant pardons to perpetrators of a 2000 coup that helped bring Qarase to power.

In a concession to Bainimarama, Qarase last month said laws would be changed to ensure no coup plotters would be pardoned.

Last week Bainimarama issued an ultimatum giving Qarase two weeks to sack senior politicians and civil servants who participated in the 2000 coup, or he would mount a "clean up campaign."

Bainimarama has demanded Hughes resign, saying an Australian should not hold the Fiji commissioner's post.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who had discussed the situation in Fiji with Australian counterpart Alexander Downer, restated his view that there is no political role for the military in a democracy.

"If Fiji was to go down the path of a coup, as it has done three time before, ... it would be a particular disaster for the Fijian people, for its economy, for its reputation and for the Pacific," Peters said.

"We seek to dissuade anyone from taking that course," he said, in a clear reference to Bainimarama.

Peters' office said there were no immediate plans for the minister to meet with Bainimarama during his time in the country.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned yesterday that there was "some risk" to travelers in the Fiji capital, Suva.

In an upgraded travel note it advised caution after "indications" the "commander of the Fiji Military Forces ... plans to act within the next week to ten days" against the government.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs this week upgraded its travel warning to Australians, saying they should reconsider traveling to the capital because of the "uncertain security situation" linked to Bainimarama's threats to the government.

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