Fiji expels Australia envoy as tensions grow

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Expelled Australian envoy Sarah Roberts flew out of Fiji Wednesday as Canberra again pressed for an early return to democratic elections in the military-led Pacific island nation.

Roberts, Australia's senior diplomat in Suva, boarded a flight out of Fiji 36 hours after being ordered to leave the country amid accusations Australia was meddling in Fiji's internal affairs.

She was declared persona non grata after the five-member Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) cancelled a scheduled summit in Fiji citing concerns about democracy and "good governance" since the 2006 military coup.

Canberra had lobbied for the summit to be postponed, and a Fiji government statement said Roberts' expulsion was a direct result of "interfering with the internal affairs of Fiji and conducting unfriendly acts".

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama charged Australia and fellow South Pacific regional power New Zealand with plotting to embarrass his country.

The military leader said he was "seriously thinking" about cancelling a return to democratic elections in 2014 because of "interference by these people."

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith described the claim as "just a ruse" but added he would not be surprised if there was no election in 2014.

"But we want elections before then," Smith said.

British Foreign Minister Jeremy Browne said the expulsion of the envoy would "further isolate Fiji" from the international community.

"The expulsion will hamper the dialogue that the international community has been calling for in order to assist Fiji in its return to democracy," he said in a statement.

Since the 2006 coup, Fiji has been suspended from the Commonwealth and the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum and has been hit with sanctions by the European Union and countries including the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

However, Bainimarama was unbowed and launched plans Wednesday for a meeting of Pacific Island leaders next week titled "Engaging Fiji".

Fiji's Foreign Affairs Minister Inoke Kubuabola said many Pacific leaders have indicated a "willingness to support Fiji's progress" in implementing its roadmap for democracy, as well as its strategic framework for change.

Australia and New Zealand have been among the harshest critics of Fiji since Bainimarama led a bloodless coup four years ago and later put back a return to democratic elections from 2009 to 2014.

Roberts left with her husband and children after meeting with several diplomats, including her counterparts from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the European Union who visited her at the Australian diplomatic compound.

As she left for the airport in a cavalcade of vehicles, Roberts stopped briefly to say "Thank you. Goodbye Fiji" to well-wishers gathered outside the gates.

Air Pacific confirmed she was on a flight due to arrive in Melbourne late Wednesday after earlier reports said she was heading to Sydney.

Roberts is the second senior Australian diplomat to be expelled from Fiji in less than a year after the high commissioner and his New Zealand counterpart were removed last November over alleged interference in Fiji's judiciary.

© 2010 AFP

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