- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

12:11 p.m.

SUVA, Fiji — Fiji’s military commander said today that he had seized control of the country and dismissed the elected prime minister after a weeks-long standoff between the two leaders rooted in tension between the South Pacific nation’s indigenous people and its ethnic Indian minority.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama told reporters he was using special powers under the constitution to assume the powers of the president and replace Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

He said he would soon return the powers to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who he expected to appoint a full interim government. Elections to restore democracy would follow, he said.

Mr. Qarase said he was under effective house arrest and that he was powerless to stop the military takeover, which came after troops surrounded his house, set up checkpoints in the capital, Suva, and seized official vehicles from government ministers.

Commodore Bainimarama and Mr. Qarase are both ethnic Fijians, but Commodore Bainimarama, who considers himself a protector of the rights of all Fijians, including ethnic Indians, began threatening in recent weeks to “clean up” the government after it proposed legislation that critics said unfairly benefited the native majority.

One bill would have granted amnesty to Fijian nationalists who stormed Parliament six years ago and deposed the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, who eventually was replaced by Mr. Qarase. Mr. Qarase has since won two elections.

Another bill would have transferred ownership of valuable coastal property to indigenous Fijians.

Commodore Bainimarama demanded that the government kill the disputed legislation or be forced out. As the standoff intensified after Commodore Bainimarama issued a deadline, Mr. Qarase offered to suspend the contentious bills but said he could not agree to demands that went outside the law.

Today’s coup is the fourth in 19 years for Fiji, which, with about 900,000 people, is among the richest and most developed nations in the South Pacific, attracting up to 400,000 tourists a year to resorts built on idyllic beaches mostly in the country’s west, away from Suva.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced in Parliament today that defense ties with Fiji were being severed and officers and their families from that country would be banned. Commodore Bainimarama is believed to have children studying in New Zealand.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would impose similar conditions if it was confirmed that Mr. Qarase had been removed. He added that two international groups — the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies and the South Pacific Forum — would consider suspending Fiji.

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