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Fiji army threatens use of force against uprising

Armed troops surrounds the parliament and interrupts senators as they debate a motion condemning the toppling of PM.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2006 22:15 IST

Fiji's military chief said on Wednesday that his troops would quickly suppress any uprising, as the country's deposed prime minister called for non-violent protests against the South Pacific nation's fourth coup in 20 years.

Opponents of Tuesday's bloodless coup by Commander Frank Bainimarama were gradually rounded up. Armed troops surrounded the parliament and interrupted senators as they debated a motion condemning the toppling of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

"We have reasonable grounds to believe that the life of the state is being threatened," Bainimarama said as he proclaimed a state of emergency and dissolved parliament.

"Should we be pushed to use force, let me state that we will do so very quickly," he said, adding that "Qarase and his cronies are not coming back".

Bainimarama's coup, which has drawn outrage abroad, came after a year-long power struggle with the mild-mannered Qarase, whom he accuses of corruption and being too soft on those behind Fiji's last coup in 2000.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said in a statement the forcible and unconstitutional replacement of Fiji's freely-elected Government raised serious concerns about its ability to guarantee rights and liberties.

Bainimarama said the planned appointment of a caretaker government "is now put on hold" because the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), the influential group of tribal leaders who appoint the president, postponed a scheduled meeting next week.

In a sign of growing opposition, the chiefs reacted angrily when Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi was removed as vice-president and told to leave his official residence.

Bainimarama says he has temporarily taken over from ailing President Ratu Josefa Iloiolo.

"Ratu Joni's removal from office is illegal, unconstitutional and most disrespectful," GCC chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini said.

Military doctor Jona Baravilala Senilagakali, a methodist lay preacher and political novice, was sworn in as caretaker prime minister at military headquarters.

"I work for the army. I'm obliged to do whatever my commander tells me to do," Baravilala said. He gave no timetable for fresh elections.

Qarase was taken by soldiers before sunrise and flown back to his home island in Fiji's remote east.

Re-elected for a second term in May, Qarase has called for Fijians to stand up for democracy and expects non-violent demonstrations soon. Hundreds of Fijians rallied outside his Suva home as the coup played out on Tuesday.

"My assessment is that about 99 per cent of our population wants democracy," he said.

Australia and New Zealand have called for people power to restore democracy to Fiji.

"I think the ordinary people of Fiji and the institutions of government in Fiji should show passive resistance to this imposition of dictatorship on their country," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told his parliament.

As domestic and international support swung behind Qarase, soldiers began detaining key public servants, including the acting police commissioner, the speaker of the parliament and Qarase's private secretary.

Judges met despite the military round-up and vowed that courts would remain open and that the rule of law must be upheld.

The coup has been condemned internationally and is expected to have catastrophic effects on Fiji's delicate economy, based on tourism and an outdated sugar industry.

Fiji's central bank tightened foreign exchange controls on Wednesday in fear of a currency run. It said in a statement the measures were necessary "to ensure that reserves are safeguarded under the current circumstances".

In scenes reminiscent of the 2000 coup, senators sat in the unique wooden parliament chamber with its steeply pitched roof as soldiers gathered outside.

"There is a coup culture which pervades this land," said Senator Tupeni Baba, the deputy prime minister deposed in the May 2000 coup by armed indigenous nationalists.

The military eased a crackdown on media reporting as other leading politicians condemned the coup, including Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who was held hostage for 56 days in the 2000 coup.

Australia and New Zealand imposed sanctions on Fiji's military and the United States suspended aid. Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said foreign ministers from the 53-nation organisation were likely to suspend Fiji on Friday.

First Published: Dec 06, 2006 22:15 IST