updated 11/29/2006 12:00:37 AM ET 2006-11-29T05:00:37

Military troops were set to secure parts of Fiji’s capital for three hours overnight Wednesday in an exercise designed to prepare for the possibility of foreign forces entering the coup-plagued nation, the military said.

The announcement of the exercise appeared to be a show of force by the military, whose leader held talks with Fiji’s elected leader earlier Wednesday in New Zealand to try to avert a coup that Australia and other regional neighbors have said may be imminent.

“The exercise will entail securing strategic areas within the greater Suva area and also the firing of illumination rounds into the sea,” the military said in a statement. “The exercise is in anticipation of any foreign intervention and the RFMF (Royal Fiji Military Forces) is taking all precautionary measures.”

The exercise would take place between midnight Wednesday and 3 a.m. Thursday, it said.

“The general public is advised to exercise caution when traveling close to these areas,” the statement said. “There should be no cause for alarm should anyone see troops in battle gears in this training areas.”

Australia this month sent three navy ships to waters near Fiji, to evacuate Australian citizens in the event of a coup, as tensions escalated between military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

Bainimarama has repeatedly warned Australia and New Zealand not to interfere in Fiji’s affairs, and claimed last month that a deployment of Australian officials to the island nation was a breach of sovereignty. Australian officials said the deployment was to bolster embassy staff.

Bainimarama has repeatedly threatened to force Qarase’s government from power unless it meets several demands, including dropping legislation that would pardon conspirators in a 2000 coup and ending moves to charge top military officers with sedition for their recent comments against the government.

Earlier Wednesday, the first face-to-face talks between Qarase and Bainimarama in 10 months ended after two hours, with the military chief driving away from the venue in a New Zealand government vehicle.

Qarase left soon afterward. Both men looked somber, and made no comment to news crews waiting outside the venue.

James Furnell, a spokesman for New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who hosted the meeting, said it had ended on schedule so that Bainimarama could catch a flight back to Fiji.

The two men have been feuding for almost two years, with Bainimarama accusing the government of corruption and threatening to force it out if Qarase doesn’t accede to a range of demands.

Qarase tried to have Bainimarama replaced last month, but failed after senior officers rallied around the commander.

The pair agreed to Wednesday’s meeting after high-level diplomacy by New Zealand and Australia, whose Foreign Minister Alexander Downer warned this week a coup was imminent.

Bainimarama has threatened in recent weeks to “clean up” Qarase’s government if it does not accede to demands by next week, including that police drop all investigations into alleged wrongdoing by senior military officers and fire the police chief.

Downer said the comments were evidence Bainimarama will launch a coup within days. It would be Fiji’s fourth coup in 19 years.

The military leader has also been an outspoken opponent of two pieces of government legislation: one offering amnesty to the plotters of a 2000 coup, and another that hands coastal land ownership in the multiethnic country to indigenous Fijians.

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