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British gov't says local elections in Turks and Caicos postponed while reforms take root

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — An election to return self governance for the Turks and Caicos Islands has been postponed, a British Foreign Office minister announced Tuesday, extending London's direct rule over the Caribbean dependency.

Henry Bellingham, the minister for overseas territories, said elections set for July 2011 would be delayed to allow time for anti-corruption and good-government reforms to take effect in the islands some 500 miles (800 kilometers) southeast of Florida.

Britain imposed direct rule on Turks and Caicos in August 2009 after a government probe into allegations that local leaders misused public money and profited from the sale of government-owned land to developers. A British corruption-inquiry panel found a need for "urgent and wide-ranging systemic change" in the former colony.

The local government and legislature were suspended and a London-appointed governor, Gordon Wetherell, took direct charge.

"We want elections to take place as soon as practicable. But I have concluded that more time is needed," Bellingham said in a statement issued by Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the close of a short visit to Turks and Caicos.

In a radio address to islanders, Bellingham said he would announce the "remaining milestones which will have to be met before elections can take place." He said the vote should be held "as soon as practicable."

"Ultimately, we all want to see TCI stand on its own two feet," he said.

The islands' former opposition party called the decision an insult and a "blatant attempt to further separate Turks and Caicos Islanders from our fundamental and inalienable rights to full democracy."

"We demand, here and now, for a return of power to the people of the Turks and Caicos Islands!" said a statement from the People's Democratic Movement, which previously welcomed the British effort to clean up politics in the territory.

Later in the day, dozens of protesters climbed over a fence at the Providenciales airport and swarmed Wetherell's car as he was about to board a flight to Grand Turk island. Police dispersed the crowd and the governor and an aide took off. No one was injured.

"You can't come into a man's country, suspend their constitution, then when it is time to return it, you are telling them that it would be extended indefinitely. That is wrong," said protester Llewellyn Basden.

Former Premier Michael Misick, later joined the demonstrators, saying islanders "have to send the British a clear message."

An investigation into widespread allegations of corruption against Misick and other officials in this territory of 23,000 people led to the imposition of direct rule by London.

Public hearings revealed Misick spent lavishly after taking office in 2003. His estranged wife, actress LisaRaye McCoy, described using private jets to commute from Los Angeles and other luxuries including a leased Rolls-Royce. Misick has denied any wrongdoing and calls the British corruption probe as "modern-day colonialism."

Earlier this year, the former premier put his 11,000-square-foot (1,022-square-meter) beachfront estate on the market.

A spokeswoman for the British governor could not immediately provide comment Tuesday afternoon.

Islanders' frustrations with the interim government have increased amid the political turmoil and slumping economy. British officials say economic problems have been exacerbated by the Misick administration's unpaid bills and failure to build up reserves.

In August, Britain's development secretary announced a $15 million emergency bailout for the islands to pay the salaries of police, medics and teachers.