Fiji's Army set up roadblocks and confiscated weapons from the country's police force Monday in what appeared to be the start of a long-expected military coup.
Truckloads of heavily armed soldiers cordoned off the barracks of the Police Tactical Response Division, the country's only armed police unit, and removed weapons from its armory. A second armory belonging to the unit was raided by troops in another part of the capital, Suva, without a shot being fired.
At a press conference in the colonial-era officers' mess of the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, military commander Frank Bainimarama said soldiers had taken the weapons to avert a clash between the military and the police force.
Weapons held by bodyguards protecting the prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, and cabinet ministers had also been confiscated, he said.
The weapons seizure appeared to be the first step in what Commodore Bainimarama has said will be a campaign to "clean up" the democratically elected government of this former British colony of 850,000 people, which he accuses of corruption. Bainimarama has indicated that he wants Prime Minister Qarase to quit so that an interim government can be appointed.
As troops set up checkpoints on roads leading in and out of Suva, days of highly charged tension appeared to be finally coming to a head. But the commander refused to say whether he was launching Fiji's fourth coup in less than 20 years.
He had been expected to announce the government's dismissal and the formation of an interim administration but stopped short of doing so.
"It is clear Fiji is on the brink of a coup," Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, told parliament in Canberra.
Qarase accused the military chief of treason. The prime minister was forced to use a helicopter to dodge a military roadblock when he returned to Suva after meeting with traditional tribal allies outside the capital.
There were reports that soldiers had planned to stop his motorcade and take him into custody.
With Fijian police putting up no resistance to the seizure of their weapons, Qarase seems to be hanging onto power by his fingernails.
"There will be no violent confrontation with the military – they are armed, we are not," said the acting police commissioner, Moses Driver. The Army's confiscation of weapons was "unlawful, unwarranted and unnecessary," he said.
Bainimarama has been embroiled in a power struggle with the prime minister for months. He installed Qarase as interim leader after declaring martial law to put down Fiji's last coup in 2000, but now accuses him of being too lenient toward the coup conspirators. Qarase has been popularly elected twice since 2000.
The prospect of another upheaval was greeted with dismay by many Fijians.
The Fiji Sun newspaper said in an editorial that "the whole nation is engulfed in fear" and unsure of the military's intentions.
"If we don't stop this now, we'll end up like Pakistan or Nigeria, stuck in a cycle of coups," said Virisila Buadromo, head of the Fiji Women's Rights Movement.
"What the military is doing is illegal, and at the end of the day we'll all suffer from it. The crisis has already affected the tourism industry – our hotels are only 20 percent full and if the coup happens it's likely that trade sanctions will be imposed."
A putsch would devastate the tourism sector, which attracts 400,000 visitors a year.
The military's grab for power has exposed deep rifts between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, the descendants of sugar-cane cutters brought in by the British in the 19th century.
The government draws most of its support from indigenous Fijians, while Bainimarama enjoys widespread support among Indo-Fijians.
"Ninety percent of Indians support Frank," said Anand Prasad, a businessman. "Qarase is a racist. The Indians built this country but the government wants to take away all our rights."
Govind Lal, a former policeman, says: "The government is crooked, and biased against Indians. It will be good if the military takes over."
The United States, Britain, and the UN have warned Bainimarama not to attempt to topple the government and have advised their citizens to avoid traveling to Fiji.
Australia has three warships in the area in case an evacuation of civilians is required, but has ruled out military intervention to prevent the coup.