Rice tells Fiji to hold elections on time
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Apia, Samoa, July 27 (bdnews24.com/Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Fiji in a meeting of Pacific foreign ministers in Samoa on Saturday to ensure the country's military rulers held elections as promised in March 2009.

Rice arrived in Samoa from Auckland for a three-hour stop-over where she joined more than a dozen ministers from the Pacific Forum to discuss Fiji, maritime security and climate change, among other issues, said a senior U.S. official.

A Pacific diplomat who attended the talks but asked not to be named, said Rice raised the issue of elections with Fiji's interim foreign minister Brigadier General Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, who arrived late for the meeting at a holiday resort near the airport.

Rice had said beforehand she would use the occasion to deliver a strong message to Fiji.

"There is especially hard work to do concerning Fiji where a return to democracy is an absolute necessity," Rice said in Auckland late on Saturday before leaving for Apia.

"Those elections should not be based on any other conditions but the ability to hold an election, something that the government of Fiji has promised to do and has promised to do next year and should do forthright," added Rice, who also visited Singapore and Australia on an eight-day trip that ends on Monday.

It was the first visit to Samoa by a U.S. Secretary of State for 20 years and Rice was joined on her plane by New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who has taken a leading role among Pacific countries to get Fiji's military to restore democracy.  

Fiji's military strongman Frank Bainimarama originally promised elections for March 2009, but he said in June this was now unlikely because reforms were needed to the electoral system.

Bainimarama staged a bloodless coup in December 2006, claiming the then government of Laisenia Qarase was corrupt and soft on those behind an earlier 2000 coup. Fiji has been hit by four coups and a military mutiny since 1987.

Sanctions have been applied by Australia, New Zealand and the European Union on Fiji, including the suspension of aid and travel bans on Fijian military and political officials. The United States also canceled military aid to Fiji after the coup.

The senior U.S. official traveling with Rice said she did not plan to meet separately with the Fijian minister, who went to Apia along with more than a dozen other ministers from the Pacific.

Ministers and officials from Australia, Fiji, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, Guam, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Palau and Papua New Guinea were among those at the meeting, hosted by Samoa's prime minister.

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