Wed, Nov 29, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Qarase meets suspected coup plotter

LAST RESORT The UN supports an attempt to broker a solution to the Fijian impasse and warned it would dismiss 1,000 Fijian peacekeeping troops if a coup took place

AFP , SUVA

Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and his maverick military commander will hold an emergency summit as regional powers scramble to avert a coup in the island nation, leaders announced yesterday.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also threw his weight behind attempts to prevent a coup, warning Fiji's military would be dismissed from UN peacekeeping forces if it overthrew the government.

The prime minister would meet today with Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in the New Zealand capital of Wellington -- where the commander is on a private visit -- Qarase and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced.

The surprise meeting between the pair, who have been at loggerheads for years, came as New Zealand and Australia raced to avoid Fiji's fourth coup in two decades.

"I am hopeful that the outcome of the discussion between Commodore Bainimarama and myself will defuse the situation in Fiji and provide a way to resolving the current crisis," Qarase told reporters before leaving for New Zealand on a New Zealand Air Force plane yesterday.

Coup fears have come to a head after Bainimarama presented a list of "non-negotiable" demands to be met by Monday, and called up around 1,000 reservists to help with a campaign to "clean up" the government.

Clark said both sides would need to compromise in the talks, due to start this morning.

"What we've proposed is that each just freeze where they are with this list of issues and see if there's a way face-to-face that they can put the issues behind them one way or another," she told a press conference.

Bainimarama has accused the government of corruption and lying, and has repeatedly threatened to force it to resign, prompting a failed bid by the government to replace him at the end of last month.

Annan tried to exert pressure on the military yesterday, telling Qarase that any military takeover would not be accepted or recognized by the UN, the Fiji government said in a statement.

"A direct consequence would be that the UN would ask Fiji to withdraw from all UN peacekeeping operations," the statement quoted Annan as saying.

Fiji has about 1,000 troops involved in peacekeeping, which provides a large income and considerable prestige for Fiji's military.

Attempts by ambassadors of the US, Britain and Australia to meet military officers at their headquarters in Suva yesterday met with an angry response.

The diplomats spoke with acting commander Captain Esala Teleni and Land Force Commander Colonel Pita Driti, reportedly to seek an assurance there would be no coup when Bainimarama returned.

Army spokesman Major Neumi Leweni said in a statement it was "inappropriate for a civilian diplomat to visit a military camp and seek to speak directly to officers."

Leweni said the military would not accept any form of foreign intervention, including any decisions made at a meeting of regional countries on Friday in Sydney.

Australia, at the request of Fiji's government, will gather foreign ministers from across the Pacific for talks aimed at averting a coup.

But Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said earlier yesterday he was pessimistic about whether the meeting would provide a solution to the crisis, and repeated his warning that a putsch was likely within two weeks.

"I hope that this meeting will make a useful contribution, but I still remain fairly pessimistic on the basis of what we know about Commodore Bainimarama's plans and preparations," Downer said.

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