Tension in Fiji as Deadline in Coup Standoff Passes

Fiji's prime minister left the capital and went into hiding Friday ahead of a military coup deadline, but soldiers stayed in their barracks and the armed forces chief spent the day at a sports event.

Military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama reportedly said he had the "green light" to replace the government, but took no action to do so. His noon deadline for officials to meet a set of military demands passed uneventfully.

Bainimarama has demanded the government kill legislation that would grant pardons to conspirators in a 2000 coup in the South Pacific island nation, and quash two other bills that he says unfairly favor majority indigenous Fijians over the ethnic Indian minority.

He also is demanding the removal of Fiji's police chief, who has threatened to charge Bainimarama with sedition for his comments about toppling the government.

Bainimarama and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase have been in a long-running feud that has escalated in recent months over Bainimarama's accusations that the government is corrupt and a push by Qarase to force the military leader out of his post.

On Friday, Qarase said he had been told the deadline to meet Bainimarama's demands had been extended until Monday.

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Bainimarama refused to comment on any extension, and was quoted by Fiji media as saying earlier, "When I will do something, I will let the people know."

The city was calm but tense on Friday. Many offices were closed, but an annual sports day between the military and police forces went ahead at the national stadium before a crowd of several thousand.

Bainimarama, wearing a floral-printed shirt rather than military dress, attended the main event, a rugby match, sitting near Vice President Joni Mandraiwiwi and acting police chief Moses Driver.

There were behind-the-scenes moves on Friday, but their purpose and outcomes were unclear. Bainimarama visited President Ratu Josefa Iloilo for about 40 minutes on Friday morning.

Qarase said the government had put in place a plan to split Cabinet members up and go to undisclosed locations, adding "we are in complete control of the government and in complete control of the administration."

The prime minister also urged the citizens of Fiji "to stand up and be counted."

"We are really fighting for our democracy," Qarase said. "We want freedom to live within a democratically civil government, where the government is elected by the people. That's what people want. We do not want a dictator."

Qarase on Thursday offered concessions in his long-running feud with Bainimarama, including suspending contentious legislation that would grant pardons to plotters in a 2000 coup and hinting that moves to charge senior military officers with sedition would be dropped.

Bainimarama rejected the offer as not going far enough.

International pressure on Bainimarama not to overthrow the government is building.

Washington expressed deep concern at Bainimarama's threats and warned U.S. aid to the country could be cut if a coup occurs.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns telephoned Qarase to "stress the United States' strong opposition to any extralegal attempts to change the government," the State Department said in a statement Thursday.

After a meeting in Sydney, Australia, to discuss the Fiji crisis, foreign ministers from the 16-member South Pacific Forum issued a statement that a coup would be "a tragedy for Fiji and would have dire consequences for the international reputation of the region as a whole."

In Canberra, Australia, acting Prime Minister Mark Vaile said Australia would "consider very seriously" any request from the Fiji government to send troops to try to prevent a coup. No request has been made.

Australia has three navy ships off the Fiji coast, but Canberra says they are there only to evacuate Australian citizens if there is a coup.

Bainimarama has defied the international pressure, including separate appeals this week from the U.N.'s secretary general and security council, to respect Fiji's democracy, which was rocked by two military coups in 1987 besides a civilian-led coup in 2000.