Prime Minister Qarase met with Captain Esala Telani, the acting defence chief, on Friday and afterwards described the recent escalation in the long running dispute between himself and Commodore Frank Bainimarama, his army commander, as a hiccup.
Qarase told reporters after the meeting: “He gave me an assurance again that the military never intended to stage a coup and that they are continuing with their war of words, as they put it. The message to our people is that things are normal.”
Qarase and Bainimarama have been in a bitter dispute for months about two pieces of government legislation: one offers amnesty to imprisoned plotters of a 2000 coup and another hands foreshore land ownership in the multi-ethnic country to indigenous Fijians.
Bainimarama accuses Qarase’s government of corruption and has threatened to force it out if the legislation is passed, prompting Qarase on Tuesday to try to replace the commander.
Friday’s meeting was the first direct talks between senior government and military officials since Qarase’s attempt to remove Bainimarama, and raised hopes that a recent cycle of escalating rhetoric was turning toward moderation.
“He gave me an assurance again that the military never intended to stage a coup and that they are continuing with their war of words, as they put it. The message to our people is that things are normal”
In a sign of continuing tension, the armed forces staged a show of force in the capital, Suva, which has been rattled by the recent escalation of a row between Qarase and Commodore Bainimarama, who is overseas.
About 3,000 troops and reservists were called out to an inspection parade on Friday at Suva’s main Queen Elizabeth military barracks. Up to 1,000 soldiers in full battle dress marched through the city in groups overnight on Thursday.
The city was calm on Friday, and tourism industry chiefs said visitors had nothing to fear. Shops were open and Parliament went ahead with its budget session – though police roadblocks guarded the building.
The US, Australia and New Zealand have expressed support for Qarase’s government and Bainimarama has come under intense pressure to stay out of politics. But troops are lloyal to Teleni.
Australia, the South Pacific region’s main power, has sent a guided-missile frigate and a naval transport ship – capable of carrying a hospital and 450 people – toward the Fiji Islands, 3,000 km northeast of Sydney.
Brendan Nelson, the Australian defence minister, said on Friday that their purpose was not to deter a coup. They would not enter Fijian waters unless Canberra orders the evacuation of 7,000 Australians from the islands, he said.
John Howard, Australia’s prime minister, said on Friday that Qarase had not requested Australian military assistance, and declined to say how he would respond to such a plea if it came.