15 Jul 2008

Australia's Smith pressures Fiji to guarantee elections early next year

4:36 am on 15 July 2008

Fiji's coup leader will today confront some of his harshest international critics, as they seek a guarantee of fresh elections early next year.

The Australian foreign minister and his New Zealand counterpart Winston Peters are in Fiji to pressure military commander Frank Bainimarama to restore democracy by March 2009.

Commodore Bainimarama, who overthrew the elected government in December 2006, has said in recent months that he aims to root out corruption and reshape the country's race-based political system before holding elections, which could delay the polls.

But Mr Smith and Mr Peters, who arrived in Suva yesterday, have warned him not to stray from his original timeframe of the first quarter next year.

The pair, along with four other foreign ministers in the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum, will meet with Commodore Bainimarama and members of his interim government today and tomorrow.

The delegation is the most senior diplomatic mission to visit Fiji since the coup, which critics say has resulted in widespread rights abuses in the country.

Mr Smith could use the talks to raise rights issues, including the expulsion earlier this year of two Australian newspaper publishers working in Fiji.

He says it is very important to the region that Fiji is a fully-fledged member of the Pacific Islands Forum, of the Commonwealth and of the region.