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Pacific tit-for-tat on cards after Fiji expels diplomats

world Updated: Nov 04, 2009 08:46 IST

Relations between Fiji's military government and its biggest South Pacific neighbours Australia and New Zealand were poised to worsen on Wednesday after the island state expelled their senior diplomats.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said his government was considering a tit-for-tat expulsion of Fijian diplomats and warning its citizens about travelling to the island nation, which has been under military rule for nearly three years following a coup.

"This is just another step down a path that makes maintaining civilised relationships a bit difficult," McCully told Radio New Zealand.

His Australian counterpart Stephen Smith told the ABC that Fiji's move risked further isolating the country, whose membership of the British Commonwealth and the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum has already been suspended.

Fiji's military ruler Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama told senior diplomats from New Zealand and Australia to leave the country within 24 hours Tuesday evening, accusing them of waging a negative campaign against his government.

The military strongman, who said his Pacific island neighbourswere "engaged in a dishonest and untruthful strategy to undermine our judiciary, our independent institutions and our economy", also ordered his country's high commissioner in Canberra home.

Bainimarama, who ousted Fiji's elected government in December 2006, has rejected calls by international bodies, including the UN and European Union - a major aid donor to the island nation of 840,000 people, to restore democracy and hold new polls this year, saying he will not do so before September 2014.

In April, he revoked Fiji's 1997 constitution, sacked the country's judges and declared a state of emergency, including censorship of the media and a ban on opposition political meetings, after the Court of Appeal ruled his government illegal.

In a televised address Tuesday evening, Bainimarama accused NewM Zealand and Australia of interfering with the new judiciary appointed after he rejected the court's ruling and had himself reappointed prime minister.

He cited delays issuing a visa for a Fiji High Court judge whose infant daughter needed medical treatment in New Zealand and Australia's refusal to allow Sri Lankan judges working in Fiji to visit Australia, as examples of interference.

Both countries have banned visits by Bainimarama's government ministers and officials as sanctions imposed until democracy is restored.

McCully said he exempted the judge whose child needed medical treatment from the travel ban and granted a visa on humanitarian grounds. The child is reported to be in hospital in Auckland.

He said the issue was probably a "convenient flashpoint" from the Fiji regime's point of view. Fiji, once the biggest island economic force in the South Pacific, has suffered four coups and a military mutiny since 1987, which damaged a fragile economy dependent on tourism and sugar.

It is the third time in three years that New Zealand's senior diplomat in the capital Suva has been kicked out. In 2007, then high commissioner (the British Commonwealth equivalent of ambassador), Michael Green, was expelled and last year his successor, Caroline McDonald, was told to leave.

Todd Cleaver, who was the third-ranking diplomat in the mission, has now been told to go home by Wednesday evening.

Fiji does not have a high commissioner - the British Commonwealth equivalent of ambassador - in New Zealand, but McCully said he had agreed last week that it could post a senior diplomat to Wellington.

Bainimarama said the senior diplomats of New Zealand and Australia were "refusing to engage with government and engaging only with those Fijians who have a political interest in holding Fiji back."

He insists that the government he ousted was corrupt and racially biased in favour of indigenous Fijians against the interests of the large ethnic Indian minority.

Bainimarama has said repeatedly that he wants to establish a new voting system giving both races equal rights before holding new elections.