Coup attempt in S. Pacific nation

Yet another fledgling South Pacific democracy is being rigorously tested by a stormy power struggle. Last year, Fiji was struck by two military coups. Now, an attempted political coup has left Vanuatu in turmoil.

For the moment, Prime Minister Walter Lini has withstood another run at his leadership by arch rival Barak Tame Sope. And the regional power broker, Australia, has voiced firm support for Mr. Lini.

On Friday, Vanuatu's president, Ati George Sokomanu (Mr. Sope's uncle), tried to disolve Parliament and sack Lini. Mr. Sokomanu named Sope and four supporters head of an ``interim government.''

But Vanuatu's Constitution doesn't give the President such unilateral powers, and Lini called the bluff. He kept Parliament in session. On Sunday, troops loyal to Lini arrested Sope and his ``ministers.'' On Monday, the Supreme court ruled Sokomanu's actions illegal.

Lini is expected to begin proceedings soon for Sokomanu's dismissal.

The extent of Sope's public support remains unclear. In a general election bid last year, he lost to Lini. In May, the Lini-Sope rivalry flared again when Sope was sacked as head of the Vila Urban Land Corporation amid allegations of financial mismanagement. Days later, a Sope-inspired demonstration erupted into a drunken riot leaving one dead and nearly $1 million in damage to the capital city of Port Vila.

Although the prospect appears remote, some Australian analysts have expressed concern that Libya could use Vanuatu as a staging base for interference in the region. Noting Sope's past ties with Libya, Australia's Prime Minister Bob Hawke had riot-control gear and medical supplies flown in May to Vanuatu. Lini has not asked for any military assistance this time around.

Ironically, Sope and Lini co-founded the ruling Vanua'aku Party and led the country to independence from French and British rule in 1980. But since May, Lini has dropped Sope from his Cabinet, removed him as general secretary of the party, and expelled his lawyer.

Indeed, using every legal means at his disposal, Lini has ruthlessly dispatched any opposition.

In July, when the opposition Union of Moderate Parties sided with Sope and boycotted Parliamentary sessions, Lini had the 17 UMP members of Parliament expelled. When interim elections were held last week to fill vacant seats, Sope told supporters to boycott the vote. Lini's party won with an official turnout of 45 percent - higher than Sope's 20 percent estimate but lower than the 80 percent plus participation in the last general election.

On Saturday, Lini abruptly expelled an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio journalist. The ABC shortwave broadcasts are the only independent news source for Vanuatu's 80-island chain located 2,250 kilometers northeast of Sydney, Australia.

Lini likens the Sope challenge to the 1980 Jimmy Santos rebellion. Then, Australia airlifted Papua New Guinea troops into Vanuatu. Santos is now in jail serving a life sentence for treason.

Sources in Port Vila report tension remained high yesterday evening as paramilitary police patrol the streets.

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