President takes control after sacking judges

Fiji's president assumed control today and fired the judges who a day earlier had declared the military government illegal, deepening the troubled South Pacific country's political turmoil.

President Ratu Josefa Iloilo announced in a nationally broadcast radio address that he had abolished the constitution, assumed all governing power and revoked all judicial appointments.

"I hereby confirm I have abrogated the 1997 constitution and appointed myself as head of state in the new order," Mr Iloilo said in the address.

The move came one day after the country's second-highest court ruled that armed forces chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama's government that took power after a 2006 coup was illegal, effectively creating a power vacuum.

In response, Mr Bainimarama went on national television to announce he had met Mr Iloilo and told him he was relinquishing the prime minister's post. He said the armed forces would continue to enforce security.

Observers said today's announcement by the aged and ailing Mr Iloilo had the stamp of Mr Bainimarama, and that the measures he announced appeared to prepare the way for the president to reappoint Mr Bainimarama as prime minister.

"It looks like a prepared statement by Bainimarama, delivered by Iloilo," Rod Alley, a senior fellow at New Zealand's Centre for Strategic Studies, said. "This is extraordinary and doesn't look good for Fiji."

Mr Iloilo said he would appoint an interim prime minister soon.

"You cannot have a country without a government," he said. "The machinery of government must continue."

Under the constitution, Fiji's president has a mostly ceremonial role as head of state and governing power is held by an elected prime minister and cabinet.

Mr Iloilo also said Fiji would hold elections in 2014.

The date of those elections - which are supposed to restore democracy - has been a sore point both domestically and internationally since Mr Bainimarama seized power in December 2006 - the country's fourth coup in 20 years.

Mr Bainimarama has long promised elections but has balked at setting a timetable, saying he would overhaul the constitution and electoral laws first - a process likely to take years.

Mr Bainimarama has been under intense international pressure - led by Australia and New Zealand - to hold elections this year under the existing constitution. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week backed that view.

A three-judge Court of Appeal panel yesterday upheld a challenge to Mr Bainimarama's rule by ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, saying the military government was illegal and urging Mr Iloilo to replace it with an interim government.

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