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Wednesday, 16th May 2007

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Reuters Fri 8 Dec 2006
Fijian soldiers enter the offices of Pacific...

Fijian soldiers enter the offices of Pacific Connex, which is owned by local entreprenuer Ballu Khan, in the nation's capital city Suva, December 8, 2006. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Splits widen as church, chiefs oppose Fiji coup

By Paul Tait

SUVA (Reuters) - Divisions over Fiji's military takeover widened on Friday as powerful traditional chiefs and politicians split on whether to support the bloodless overthrow of the South Pacific island nation's government.

Deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase remained defiant, calling on bureaucrats not to cooperate with the military, but appeared to concede that his government was finished.

"I'm 67 years old, I'm not young any more," Qarase said from his village on an island in Fiji's remote east.

"The option of permanent retirement is also there," he told Fiji radio, adding he wanted to retun to the capital, Suva.

Qarase was ousted on Tuesday after a year-long power struggle with military Commander Frank Bainimarama, who accused his government of being corrupt and too soft on the perpetrators of Fiji's last coup, in 2000. It was Fiji's fourth coup in 20 years.

Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), the traditional authority which represents 14 chiefly provinces and appoints the president, has opposed the takeover as undemocratic and illegal.

Bainimarama has been trying to get the council to meet to endorse the reinstatement of President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the first step towards naming an interim government.

But chiefs have resisted his attempts. Hundreds of villagers have blocked the entrance to Tavualevu village, home of GCC Chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini, to stop soldiers entering.

"We are not going to see this happen. We will protect our chief," The Fiji Times newspaper quoted village spokesman Apisalome Ulusova as saying.

Another village has called on its men and women in the military to lay down their arms. Qarase predicts there will be demonstrations against Bainimarama, while Australia has encouraged passive resistance.

"DARKNESS AND EVIL"

But one widely respected chief, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, has offered himself as a mediator between the military and the GCC.

"We all know it (the coup) is illegal but it is the lesser of two evils," said Ganilau, a former head of the military and ex-GCC chairman who appointed Bainimarama military chief in 1999.

Some observers saw his mediation offer as a thinly disguised bid to become president or head of the caretaker government.

The takeover has splintered the foundations of Fijian life. Christian churches, which represent more than 80 percent of indigenous Fijians, took out large newspaper advertisements on Friday to spell out their opposition to Bainimarama.

"We are deeply convinced that the move now taken by the commander and his advisers is the manifestation of darkness and evil," Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu, president of the Fiji Council of Churches, said in the advertisement.

But some leading politicians have urged chiefs and churches to back the military and work towards democracy.

Deposed Environment Minister Poseci Bune said Qarase should accept the military takeover, adding "the quicker we co-operate the quicker we move out of this state of confusion".

Fiji's first Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, who was toppled in 2000, said he could work with the military to restore democracy but would not serve on a military-appointed government.

"We certainly stand ready to extend any help that we can," he told New Zealand radio. "It does not mean that we cannot use this adversity that has struck us to negotiate a better future for the people of Fiji and for a stable and democratic arrangement."

Fiji's fourth coup has brought international condemnation, with Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States imposing economic and defence sanctions.

Nervous shopkeepers fear a return to the violence of the racially motivated 2000 coup, when indigenous Fijians who make up about 51 percent of the 900,000 population burnt and looted ethnic Indian-owned businesses, but Suva has remained calm.

Off-duty soldiers lolled under palm trees inside the sprawling tropical presidential estate on Friday, while across the street fishermen cast nets in the shallows of Suva's lagoon.

And Bainimarama, who installed himself as temporary president, has been seen this week with a baseball cap worn backwards playing touch rugby in a downtown Suva park.

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Last updated: 08-Dec-06 09:35 BST