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Fiji's prime minister says military coup under way in capital

Fiji's prime minister said today that a military takeover was under way in the South Pacific country as armed troops surrounded his house and other government buildings in a lockdown of the capital.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he refused a request from Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase for "military intervention" to end the coup. New Zealand called the coup an "outrage" and said it was cutting military ties with Fiji, the first international sanctions.

Qarase said it was not clear who was in control of his tiny country after heavily armed soldiers set up checkpoints around the capital, Suva, and seized official vehicles from government ministers.

"There are some things that aren't clear," Qarase told the Legend radio network by telephone, when he was asked if he was still in charge. "If the military has completed the takeover, then they are in control. If they have not completed the takeover, then we are still the government of the day."

Earlier, about 40 troops carrying semiautomatic rifles set up guard posts around the prime minister's house, but left in trucks after about an hour.

"There is virtually a coup now taking place," Qarase told New Zealand's National Radio.

Qarase again refused to meet the key demand of the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, that he resign, saying it would be illegal to quit under threat of ouster.

Bainimarama wants the government to kill legislation that would grant pardons to conspirators in a 2000 coup, and eliminate other bills he says unfairly favor indigenous Fijians.

A coup would be the fourth in 19 years for the country.