Tue, Nov 28, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Pacific nations to meet on Fiji

COUP FEARS New Zealand's foreign minister met in Wellington with Fiji's military chief, who has mobilized reservists after threatening to topple the government

AFP , SUVA

Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama gestures during his address to the nation at Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva, Fiji, on Nov. 8. Australia is racing to arrange an emergency summit of Pacific foreign ministers to avert a military coup in Fiji this week.

PHOTO: AFP

Foreign ministers from 16 Pacific countries will hold a crisis meeting in Sydney this week in a last-ditch bid to avert Fiji's fourth coup in two decades, officials said yesterday.

The news came as troops started patrols around the Fijian capital Suva in what the military described as exercises, and Fiji's police commissioner described the country as "dangerously close" to a coup.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters held a second meeting in Wellington with Fiji's rebellious military commander, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who has mobilized reservists after repeatedly threatening to overthrow Fiji's government.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer -- who will host the foreign ministers' meeting in Sydney -- warned a coup was likely within two weeks.

"We are doing everything we possibly can to stop Commodore Bainimarama moving ahead with his coup in Fiji, but there is no doubt that he is somewhat committed to this course of action," he told parliament in Canberra.

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Greg Urwin said Fiji's Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase had requested the ministers' meeting, which will be held on Friday.

Under the forum's Biketawa Declaration, member countries can intervene to help resolve unrest in another member state, but only at the request of the affected government.

"Any unlawful overthrow of a democratically elected government has wide implications for the entire region," Urwin said.

Fiji's government indicated it would welcome a statement from forum countries warning Fiji's military about the severe consequences of any illegal action, he said.

Australia and New Zealand on Sunday both elevated their warnings to their citizens planning to visit the country.

Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, who has previously dismissed coup talk as rhetoric, said the country was dangerously close to a coup and added there was little chance of a negotiated settlement with Bainimarama.

"He has thumbed his nose at just about every element of society here, he's thumbed his nose at the diplomatic community, his overseas counterparts, it's mind-boggling," Hughes told Radio New Zealand.

Bainimarama has been in New Zealand on a private visit and met Peters on Saturday and again yesterday afternoon as regional powers scrambled to avert a coup.

"The government's message has consistently been that the military has no role in the processes of a democratically elected government," a spokesman for Peters said, declining to give details of the meetings.

The military raised the stakes on Sunday, announcing that around 1,000 reservists had been recalled to prepare for a "clean up" campaign against the government.

Military patrols in vehicles and on foot were seen on the streets of Suva yesterday, setting off rumors of an imminent takeover. But senior military officers said troops were only on exercise.

Bainimarama said over the weekend the army would act if Qarase did not drop a police investigation against him and other senior officers.

Qarase appealed for calm and said the government would not interfere with the police investigation into Bainimarama.

"The government will not be a party to breaking the law," he said.

Meanwhile, former coup leader and prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka pleaded not guilty yesterday to two counts of inciting a mutiny at the start of a new trial in Fiji's High Court.

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