Fiji faces possible coup

This week's leadership conflict adds the island nation to Australia's growing list of unstable neighbors.

Fiji's Army brazenly defied the country's police force by seizing thousands of rounds of ammunition Wednesday, increasing concerns about a fourth military coup on the island nation in less than 20 years.

Australia was readying warships Wednesday to evacuate 7,000 of its citizens. Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, said he was "very concerned" about the possibility of a coup.

A series of crises over the past two months has plunged relations between Australia's capital Canberra and its South Pacific neighbors to a new low. In addition to the tension in Fiji, Australia is struggling to manage standoffs with the Solomon Islands, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea amid accusations that it bullies its smaller, poorer island neighbors.

The recent spat of diplomatic scuffles could be seen as a trial period for what some are calling Australia's "tough love" policy toward its neighbors.

Opposition members of Parliament have accused the government of committing troops to Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of its responsibilities closer to home. Recent events in the South Pacific have raised fears here that the Australian Army is overstretched by too many deployments.

Australia has taken a more robust approach to its immediate region since the Sept. 11 attacks on the US, fearful that failing states could be exploited by terrorists or international crime syndicates.

It has invested money and manpower throughout the region but is seen by some countries as a bully.

Australia's prime minister, John Howard, has warned that South Pacific states must stamp out corruption and improve economic management if aid is to continue.

"It's not arrogant to want Australia's money to be spent wisely," Mr. Howard said, noting that Australia had spent $800 million (US $620 million) since 2003 helping the Solomon Islands recover from a bloody ethnic insurgency.

In what amounts to the latest regional crisis, Fijian troops seized a consignment of ammunition recently shipped in from South Korea from a wharf in the capital, Suva.

The seizure of the 7.5 tons of ammunition was in direct contravention of orders issued by the country's Australian police chief, Andrew Hughes, who said it was too dangerous to release it until the political situation calmed down.

The head of the armed forces, Frank Bainimarama, has threatened to topple Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase unless he drops a contentious bill which would offer amnesty to the plotters of the last coup, which was in 2000.

On Tuesday, the government failed in an attempt to replace the outspoken military commander, who is visiting Fijian troops in the Middle East – a move that infuriated the maverick officer.

"I'll be back to see that Qarase and his cronies step down," Commander Bainimarama told the Fiji Sun newspaper. "Now that they have failed to remove me, all that needs to be done is for the government to resign gracefully."

But Mr. Qarase said there was "no question" of him or his cabinet stepping down, increasing the prospects of an explosive confrontation.

The political instability in Fiji is only the latest challenge for the Australian government.

In East Timor, Australian peacekeeping troops who were sent to the country in May to quell street violence have been accused of human rights abuses and of failing to stem gang warfare – charges the Army vehemently denies.

Canberra's relations with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands reached a crisis point after the two countries resisted Australian attempts to extradite the Solomons' attorney general on child sex charges.

As the investigation into the attorney general escalated, Australian police eventually raided the office of the Solomons' prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, and arrested his immigration minister. A furious Mr. Sogavare then threatened to expel more than 460 Australian peacekeepers and advisers from his impoverished country.

At last week's Pacific Islands Forum, a summit of 16 regional leaders in Fiji, Australia was accused of heavy-handed tactics. The forum's outgoing chairman, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, said that Australia treated leaders in the region with contempt.

Wire service reports were used in this story.

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