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Page last updated at 08:18 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 09:18 UK

Fiji leader slammed for boycott

Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama (file image)
Frank Bainimarama says he cannot keep to the election timetable

Fiji's self-appointed prime minister has been sharply criticised for his decision to boycott a summit of South Pacific leaders on the island of Niue.

Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a bloodless coup in December 2006, says Fiji is being pressured to return to democratic rule too quickly.

But New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said she suspected he was "looking for an excuse".

Soaring fuel and food prices are also on the agenda of the 16-nation summit.

They have hit Pacific islands particularly hard due to their reliance on imported foods, physical isolation and weak economies.

Bitter divisions

Mr Bainimarama gave a commitment at last year's Pacific Islands Forum in Tonga to hold democratic elections in Fiji by March 2009.

But he now says that the elections will be delayed for up to 15 months to allow a new electoral system to be set up.

He says this is necessary to try to overcome some of the deep divisions that remain in Fiji between the majority indigenous population and Fijians of Indian background.

Mr Bainimarama, who accuses Australia and New Zealand of driving opposition to his regime, also blamed his absence on New Zealand's refusal to give his delegation visas to attend post-forum talks in Auckland.

But Ms Clark rejected his arguments when she spoke to reporters in Wellington.

"If that's what he's saying, then I suspect that he was looking for an excuse," she said. "I think it speaks volumes if they are not prepared to come and be accountable to forum leaders."

Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told Australian television it was "very disappointing that he won't turn up to effectively take his medicine".

'Durable democracy'

Delegates at the summit, which runs from Tuesday to Thursday, are due to hear a report on Fiji from a mission of member-nation foreign ministers.

Reports say the mission has concluded that political will is the only obstacle to holding elections in Fiji by March.

But in a statement sent to forum member states, Mr Bainimarama said his government needed time to reform a "racist, divisive, undemocratic and unfair electoral system".

He said he wanted the forum to support the reform process, but if it did not "I will be compelled... to tell the people of my country that they must now be prepared to suffer more sanctions, and international isolation as we pursue... a better, more durable democracy".

Mr Bainimarama has governed Fiji since ousting elected Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in December 2006, accusing him of corruption.

Fiji has endured four coups and a military mutiny since 1987.


SEE ALSO
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Australian anger over Fiji threat
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