SUVA, Fiji – Troops loyal to Fiji's defiant military chief disarmed the police and set up checkpoints in the capital on Monday, stepping up pressure on the prime minister to resign or face ouster.
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase dodged one checkpoint by returning by helicopter from a meeting with supporters outside the capital, Suva, after earlier insisting he was still in control despite escalating threats from the commander.
Monday's raids on police armories and troops on the streets escalated the political crisis that has gripped the Pacific island nation for weeks.
But the failure of the military chief, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, to make good on his threats against the government three days after the expiration of a deadline he set raised doubts he was ready yet to remove elected officials from office.
Troops in about six trucks went to the compound of the police tactical response unit — a group of about two dozen officers that is Fiji's only armed police unit — outside the capital and drove off with its automatic rifles and ammunition after talking with officers.
Soldiers also went to the police academy in downtown Suva and emptied its armory of weapons used in official ceremonies, along with officers' private firearms. There was no conflict, and trainees continued marching on parade as soldiers took the guns from the academy.
Bainimarama has been threatening to "clean up" the government for weeks, and set a deadline of noon last Friday for Qarase to meet a range of demands or face ouster.
On Sunday, Bainimarama changed tack slightly and demanded Qarase resign and allow an interim government to be appointed.
Monday's raids appeared aimed at pressuring Qarase to meet those demands, without the full military takeover that could trigger international censure and the possibility of sanctions.
"They are now reaching a point, the military, where they are trying to persuade the prime minister to stand down without actually mounting a coup," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose country has been watching developments in nearby Fiji closely, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in Canberra.
Still, Downer told Parliament later, Fiji remained "clearly on the brink of a coup."
Bainimarama said in a statement read to a news conference that Monday's seizures were "to ensure that police weapons are not used against the military." Police continued to have a role in maintaining security in Fiji, he said.
Asked who was running the country, Bainimarama replied: "I don't have any comments right now," and left.
Police have said they are not in a position to challenge Fiji's military of more than 5,000 regular and reservist troops.
Acting Police Commissioner Moses Driver said the military's actions were "unlawful, unwarranted and unnecessary," but said he did not believe that raids indicated the military had seized power.
"Until now I have not concluded a coup d'etat is in place," Driver said. "This is only the disarming of the police. ... There will be no violent confrontation with the military, they are armed, we are not armed."
Fiji, with about 900,000 people, is among the richest and most developed in the South Pacific, attracting up to 400,000 tourists a year to resorts built on idyllic beaches mostly in the country's west, away from Suva.
But a coup would be the fourth in 19 years for Fiji, which has lurched from one political crisis to the next. The military twice grabbed power in 1987 to ensure political supremacy for indigenous Fijians among a population that includes a large ethnic Indian minority.
Gunmen angry that those advantages were being eroded seized Parliament in a 2000 coup that brought Qarase, a moderate nationalist, to power in a deal brokered by Bainimarama. Qarase has since won two elections.
Bainimarama and Qarase have long since fallen out. The commander wants the government to kill legislation that would grant pardons to conspirators in the 2000 coup, and quash other bills he says unfairly favor indigenous Fijians. He has demanded the police tactical unit be disbanded, and that sedition investigations against senior military officers be dropped.
Qarase has offered to suspend the contentious bills, but says he cannot agree to any demands that go outside the law.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Monday that Bainimarama had been warned that international sanctions would follow if he staged a coup.