Fears of an imminent coup in Fiji grew on Monday as Australia and New Zealand warned their citizens to avoid travel to the island nation and South Pacific neighbors called a regional crisis meeting.
Small groups of armed soldiers patrolled the streets of the capital, Suva, while others dressed in camouflage uniforms guarded the president’s residence. Hundreds of army reservists have been recalled for unscheduled exercises.
Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, who is at the center of a stand-off with the nation’s defiant military chief, warned that the likelihood of a fourth coup in 20 years had become “too close for comfort”.
“This week, I think, is going to be a critical turning point in the whole thing,” Hughes told New Zealand radio.
The warning came as police continued investigations into whether military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama should be charged with sedition over his repeated threats to remove Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.
Bainimarama has repeatedly threatened to remove Qarase’s elected government unless it drops several pieces of contentious legislation, including a bill that would grant amnesty to those involved in a coup in 2000.
Last week Bainimarama delivered the government a list of non-negotiable demands and a two-week deadline to comply, at the same time threatening a “clean-up” of the Qarase government.
An upgraded Australian government travel advisory said citizens should consider leaving Suva if they were concerned for their safety. The advisory warns of political tensions which could lead to mob violence and civil disorder.
“We recommend that Australians reconsider the need to travel at this time due to the increasingly volatile situation and that situation could deteriorate at any time without warning,” Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told parliament.
New Zealand also urged its citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to Fiji and closed its High Commission in Suva. Embassy staff were moved to the sugar and tourism hub of Nadi on the west coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu.
Bainimarama, in New Zealand on a private visit, has also called on police chief Hughes, an Australian, to resign or be removed over the sedition investigation.
“We are doing everything we possibly can to try to stop Commodore Bainimarama moving ahead with his coup in Fiji but there is no doubt that he is somewhat committed to this course of action,” said Downer.
“We are deeply concerned about this and there will of course be significant consequences for Fiji’s standing in the international community,” he said.
New Zealand media reported that Foreign Minister Winston Peters had met Bainimarama for the second time in three days on Monday in a bid to head off the crisis.
Meeting set for Friday
A spokesman for the Pacific Islands Forum said a meeting of the regional grouping’s foreign ministers had been called at Qarase’s request in a bid to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The meeting will take place in Sydney on Friday.
Bainimarama has rejected any suggestion of a third country brokering a settlement and was incensed this month by Australia’s decision to position naval ships near Fiji in case it needs to evacuate its citizens.
Fiji has suffered three coups since 1987. Bainimarama was almost killed in a bloody but failed mutiny attempt linked to the 2000 coup.