17 Jul 2008

Pacific leaders defend meeting with deposed Fiji PM

5:54 am on 17 July 2008

Pacific Island foreign ministers are defending their meeting with Fiji's deposed prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, during their visit to assess the country's readiness and willingness to hold elections.

The Ministerial Contact Group included representatives from New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu. They have finished two days of talks and will report to forum leaders in Niue in August.

The ministers were reluctant to give much detail about their meetings with the interim leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, election officials and Mr Qarase.

But they have concluded that there are no practical barriers to holding elections by March 2009.

The ministers say the credibility of their report lies on hearing the views of a range of people, including those opposed to the interim government.

Mr Qarese, deposed in a coup in 2006, says he remains confident elections will go ahead on schedule and intends to stand as a candidate.

The military took power in Fiji in December 2006. It was the fourth coup there since 1987.

Commodore Bainimarama told his soldiers in June that elections promised for early next year were unlikely to take place because corruption problems remained.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says that, from a logistical point of view, elections could be held within a very short time frame, but there had to be the political will.

Mr Peters says the issue of sanctions imposed by New Zealand and Australia was raised at a meeting on Tuesday with Commodore Bainimarama.

On Wednesday, he said the interim administration was pushing to have trade sanctions lifted, but that would not happen until the New Zealand Government saw a credible path to an election.

In June, Fiji suspended talks with the Fiji Joint Working Group, citing New Zealand and Australia's "neo-colonial" attitudes as one reason.

Mr Peters had expressed concern about Fiji's withdrawal from the group, saying it was a sign that Fiji was moving away from its commitment to the election timetable.