SUVA, Fiji – Fiji's military commander said Tuesday that he had seized control of the country and dismissed the elected prime minister after a weeks-long standoff between the two leaders rooted in tension between the South Pacific nation's indigenous people and its ethnic Indian minority.
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 Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.
He said he would soon return the powers to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who he expected to appoint a full interim government. Elections to restore democracy would follow, he said.
Qarase said he was under effective house arrest, and that he was powerless to stop the military takeover, which came after troops surrounded his house, set up checkpoints in the capital, Suva, and seized official vehicles from government ministers.
Bainimarama and Qarase are both ethnic Fijians but Bainimarama, who considers himself as a protector of the rights of all Fijians including ethnic Indians, began threatening in recent weeks to "clean up" the government after it proposed legislation that critics said unfairly benefited the native majority.
One bill would have granted amnesty to Fijian nationalists who stormed the parliament six years ago and deposed the country's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, who was eventually replaced by Qarase. Qarase has since won two elections.
Another bill would have transferrred ownership of valuable coastal property to indigenous Fijians.
Bainimarama demanded the government kill the disputed legislation or be forced out. As the standoff intensified after Bainimarama issued a deadline, Qarase 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 were internationally condemned.
Tuesday's coup is the nation's fourth in 19 years for Fiji, which, 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.
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.