Deadline in Fiji coup stand-off passes without incident

Troops stayed in their barracks as a threatened coup deadline in Fiji passed on Friday, with the country’s defiant military commander enjoying a day at a sporting event while the prime minister left the capital and went into hiding.

Troops stayed in their barracks as a threatened coup deadline in Fiji passed on Friday, with the country’s defiant military commander enjoying a day at a sporting event while the prime minister left the capital and went into hiding.

Armed forces chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama reportedly said he had the “green light” to replace the government after his noon deadline passed without the government satisfying his demands. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said he had been told the deadline had been extended until Monday.

Bainimarama refused to comment to media after watching a rugby game in the capital, Suva. Local media quoted his as saying earlier: “When I will do something, I will let the people know.”

The city was calm but tense throughout today. Many offices were closed, but an annual sports day between the military and police forces went ahead at the national stadium before a crowd of several thousand.

Bainimarama, wearing a floral-printed shirt rather than military dress, attended the main event, a rugby match, sitting near Vice President Joni Mandraiwiwi and acting police chief Moses Driver.

There were behind-the-scenes moves today, but their purpose and outcomes were unclear.

Bainimarama visited President Ratu Josefa Iloilo for about 40 minutes this morning.

Qarase, in an interview with the Legend radio network, said the vice president later tried to arrange a meeting with him, but he was unavailable because the leader had left the capital, Suva.

He said the government had put in place a plan to split Cabinet members up and go to undisclosed locations, adding: ”We are in complete control of the government and in complete control of the administration.”

In the nationally broadcast interview, Qarase also urged the citizens of Fiji “to stand up and be counted”.

“We are really fighting for our democracy,” Qarase said. “We want freedom to live within a democratically civil government, where the government is elected by the people. That’s what people want. We do not want a dictator.”

Qarase yesterday offered concessions in the long-running feud between the two men, including suspending contentious legislation that would grant pardons to plotters in a 2000 coup and hinting that moves to charge senior military officers with sedition would be dropped.

Bainimarama rejected the offer as not going far enough.

International pressure on Bainimarama not to overthrow the government continued to build.

Washington expressed deep concern at Bainimarama’s threats and warned US aid to the country could be cut if a coup occurs.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns telephoned Qarase to “stress the US’ strong opposition to any extralegal attempts to change the government” the State Department said in a statement yesterday.

After a meeting in Sydney, Australia to discuss the Fiji crisis, foreign ministers from the 16-member South Pacific Forum issued a statement that a coup would be “a tragedy for Fiji and would have dire consequences for the international reputation of the region as a whole”.

In Canberra, acting Prime Minister Mark Vaile said Australia would “consider very seriously” any request from the Fiji government to send troops to try to prevent a coup. No request has been made.

Australia has three navy ships off the Fiji coast, but Canberra says they are there only to evacuate Australian citizens in the event of a coup.

Bainimarama has defied the international pressure, including separate appeals this week from the UN’s secretary general and security council, to respect Fiji’s democracy, which was rocked by two military coups in 1987 in addition to the civilian-led coup in 2000.

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