"The interim government should commit to a firm timetable for a national election which ... should be held in between 18 months and two years, if not sooner."
 

Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the armed forces commander, drew international condemnation by ousting the elected government of Laisenia Qarase on December 5.

 

Corruption alleged

 

Bainimarama says he will restore democracy through elections held not before 2010, after he has weeded out alleged corruption and overseen a full review of the electoral infrastructure.

 

Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, Fiji's foreign minister, and Aiyez Faed Khaiyum, the attorney-general, told their counterparts on Friday that the regime might be able to speed up the process if it received international assistance.

 

Winston Peters, New Zealand's foreign minister, said Australia, New Zealand and the British Commonwealth grouping of 54 nations stood ready to help, but only if the regime adopts the two-year timetable.

 

He said: "If it does not, it is certainly not unconditional, unqualified support."

 

Peters said the forum "strongly endorsed" the report, which rejected the military's timetable as "excessive" and said Bainimarama should stand down and appoint a civilian leader.

 

Alexander Downer, Australia's foreign minister, said he welcomed the Fijian officials' statement as a signal the regime was prepared to be flexible on the timing of elections.

 

Fiji's government would consider the ministers' statement before responding, Major Neumi Leweni, a military spokesman, said in the Fijian capital, Suva.

 

Rights abuses

 

Ministers also endorsed the report's condemnation of alleged rights abuses by Fiji's military. It said up to 200 people had been threatened, intimidated and beaten for their opposition to the coup.

 

Bainimarama says he took power to clean up alleged corruption during Qarase's administration, and to prevent the passing of laws pardoning plotters of a 2000 coup and handing lucrative land rights to indigenous Fijians.

 

Qarase, who has been banished to his remote home island, vowed on Thursday to contest the next elections.