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Fiji military topples elected government

Prime minister under house arrest amid ethnic divide

SUVA, Fiji -- Fiji's military overthrew the elected government yesterday after weeks of threats, locking down the capital and putting the prime minister under house arrest in the fourth coup in the South Pacific country in 19 years.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the armed forces chief credited with resolving Fiji's last coup, announced in a nationally broadcast statement that, "As of 6 o'clock this evening, the military has taken over the government, has executive authority and the running of this country."

The takeover, like the previous three coups, has its roots in the ethnic divide between the descendants of ancient Melanesian warrior tribes and those of Indian laborers brought by former colonial power Britain to work in sugar plantations.

In his declaration, Bainimarama justified seizing power to prevent legislation that favored indigenous Fijians, contending the measures "would undermine the constitution and deny many citizens their rights."

Bainimarama said he had assumed some powers of the president and was using them to dismiss Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. In the 2000 coup, Bainimarama set up an interim government and hand-picked Qarase, a former banker, to lead it.

Bainimarama named Dr. Jona Senilagakali, a military medic with no political experience, as caretaker prime minister and said a full interim government would be appointed next week to see the country through elections that would restore democracy .

Qarase's leadership has gained the legitimacy of two general elections, but Bainimarama grew frustrated with his nationalist leanings, in particular legislation that offered pardons to the 2000 coup plotters and handed coastal land rights to indigenous Fijians.

Bainimarama demanded the government kill the legislation or be forced out. Qarase offered to suspend the bills but said he could not agree to demands that went outside the law.

"The government they want to set up will be totally illegal," Qarase said at his house in Suva, where he said he was under effective house arrest. "What the military commander has done has raped our constitution."

The United States suspended $2.6 million in assistance to Fiji, most of it for financing of military sales to Fiji and the training of service personnel.

New Zealand announced it was suspending defense ties with the country and would ban its military officers from traveling to Fiji. Bainimarama is believed to have children living in New Zealand.

"This is an outrage what is happening in Fiji," Prime Minister Helen Clark told reporters in Wellington, New Zealand's capital.

Britain said it was suspending military aid to Fiji, and Don McKinnon, the secretary-general of 53-member Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies, said Fiji was likely to be suspended from the group. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanded the immediate restoration of the elected government.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard revealed that Qarase had asked him early yesterday to send troops to Fiji to try to stop the coup. Howard refused.

Fiji is among the richest and most developed nations in the South Pacific, attracting up to 400,000 tourists a year .

But it has lurched from one political crisis to the next since the military twice grabbed power in 1987 to ensure political supremacy for the 51 percent majority indigenous Fijians, cutting out the 44 percent ethnic Indian minority.

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