Troops disarm police in Fiji, escalating coup fears

Troops entered two police compounds on Monday and emptied their armories of weapons, escalating the South Pacific nation's political crisis but stopping short of unseating the elected government.

The raids appeared aimed at heaping pressure on Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase to meet armed forces chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama's demand that he quit and allow an interim government to be appointed a move that could avert the international censure and possible sanctions that a military takeover would bring.

The capital, Suva, remained tense Monday night, with soldiers manning check points erected on some streets but not stopping vehicles.

Earlier Monday, troops in about six trucks went to the compound of the police tactical response unit a group of about two dozen officers that is the police force's only armed unit outside Suva and held talks with officers before loading the vehicles with automatic rifles and ammunition and driving away.

Troops also went to the police academy downtown and emptied an armory of firearms privately owned by police and weapons used in official ceremonies.

Police have said previously they are not in a position to challenge the more than 5,000 regular and reservist troops in Fiji's military in the event of a takeover, and Monday's raids were without conflict. Trainees continued marching on parade as soldiers took weapons from the academy.

Bainimarama said in a statement read to reporters that the seizures were "to ensure that police weapons are not used against the military," and added that police continued to have a role in maintaining security in Fiji.

Asked who was running the country, Bainimarama replied: "I don't have any comments right now," and left the news conference.

Acting Police Commissioner Moses Driver said the military's actions were "unlawful, unwarranted and unnecessary" but said he did not believe that raids indicated the military had seized power.

"Until now I have not concluded a coup d'etat is in place," Driver said. "This is only the disarming of the police."

"There will be no violent confrontation with the military, they are armed, we are not armed," Driver said.

Qarase, meanwhile, drove to a meeting with supporters outside the capital but returned by helicopter after a military check point was set up on the road he was likely to return on, reports AP.

Bainimarama has threatened to topple Qarase at any time, after saying last week that a deadline to meet his demands to "clean up" the government had expired. He has vowed a peaceful transition.