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Australian mercenaries sent to Fiji, says army Print

Joel Gibson in Suva - November 6, 2006

FIJI'S military has accused Australia of being complicit in smuggling a training force of armed Australian police officers into the country and compared the alleged move to the involvement of South African mercenaries in Bougainville in 1997.

And it has warned Fiji's Police Commissioner, the Australian Andrew Hughes, "to tread very carefully" in the future.

A team of Australian nationals had arrived at Nadi airport on Friday night with 400 kilograms of equipment in "strong, silver boxes" and bypassed customs, said the land forces commander, Colonel Pita Driti.

"The manner in which they were greeted at Nadi Airport and taken without being cleared by the appropriate authorities under police escort is a serious matter and one which should be addressed very urgently," he said.

"In the interest of the nation, in what could be seen as a threat to national security, the RFMF [Republic of Fiji Military Forces] demands an explanation by Commissioner Hughes about this very serious matter."

Colonel Driti said he suspected some "inter-police force involvement" and called it a "gross breach of sovereignty".

"It's a matter of accountability. If they're not accountable enough or not transparent enough we will consider them as mercenaries. The RFMF would like to remind the public that this is a repeat of the events that took place in PNG a few years ago, known as the Sandline episode."

It was another example of "sheer ignorance or hegemonic shoving of big brother policies down our throats", he said, pointing to Australia's strained relationship with other Pacific countries.

A spokesman for the Australian Federal Police said last night: "AFP categorically denies that any AFP members travelled to Fiji as alleged. Any suggestion that AFP members are involved is baseless in fact."

As part of a wide-ranging and sometimes confusing attack on the Police Commissioner, Colonel Driti said that Mr Hughes, "being a non-citizen and having a totally different cultural background, does not have the necessary expertise to engage successfully in the local context.

"We would like to state our disappointment to him and inform him to tread very carefully on the path he has now taken."

As fears of a fourth coup in Fiji rose last week, Mr Hughes accused the military of illegally seizing seven tonnes of ammunition from a Suva wharf.

The faltering relationship between the two forces has added to tensions in the capital, Suva, where a two-year-old feud between the outspoken military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, and the Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, reached crisis point after Mr Qarase made a failed attempt to have Commodore Bainimarama removed while he was overseas visiting Fijian troops.

Commodore Bainimarama returned to Fiji on Saturday but has not spoken publicly since. He spent yesterday morning meeting senior officers and preparing Colonel Driti's statement. 

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