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Fiji's Military Chief Claims Control of Country

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Fiji soldiers blockade PM Qarase's residence in Suva. (AP)

Fiji's military commander said Tuesday that he had seized control of the country, dismissed the elected prime minister and appointed an interim replacement.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama told a news conference that he was using special powers under the constitution to assume the powers of the president and replace Premier Laisenia Qarase.

He said he would soon surrender the powers back to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who he expected would appoint a full interim government. Elections to restore democracy would follow, he said.

The announcement came after armed troops surrounded Qarase's house, set up checkpoints in the capital, Suva, and seized official vehicles from government ministers.

Qarase said he was under effective house arrest, and that he was powerless to stop the military takeover.

Bainimarama had been threatening to "clean up" Qarase's government for weeks, demanding that Qarase resign or be ousted and the government kill legislation that the military chief opposed. Qarase had offered to suspend the contentious bills, but said he could not agree to demands that went outside the law.

The commander's threats to take over the government have been internationally condemned.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced in Parliament Tuesday that defense ties with Fiji were being severed and officers and their families from that country would be banned. Bainimarama is believed to have children studying in New Zealand.

"This is an outrage what is happening in Fiji today," she told reporters in Wellington, the capital.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would impose similar conditions if it was confirmed Qarase had been removed, adding that two international groups -- the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies and the South Pacific Forum -- would consider suspending Fiji.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Qarase had asked Canberra to send troops to try to prevent the coup, but that he had rejected the request.

"The possibility of Australian and Fijian troops firing on each other in the streets of Suva was not a prospect that I for a moment thought desirable," Howard told a news conference in Canberra.

Bainimarama has warned any foreign intervention would be fiercely opposed by the Fiji military.

About a half-dozen ministers were holed up with Qarase in his house. Outside, about 70 supporters gathered to sing hymns and say prayers.

"Forgive these people for their deeds," they prayed.

Fiji, with about 900,000 people, is among the richest and most developed nations 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.

The coup is the fourth in 19 years for Fiji, which has lurched from one political crisis to the next since 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 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, who is of ethnic Fijian descent. Qarase has since won two elections.

Bainimarama and Qarase have long since fallen out. The bills Bainimarama wanted dropped included one pardoning conspirators in the 2000 coup.

He wanted the government to drop sedition investigations of senior military officers.

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