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Fiji's ousted Premier heads home

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March 3, 2001 


SUVA, Fiji (AP) Ousted last year in a nationalist coup, Fiji's prime minister said Friday he was headed home to ``reclaim the people's mandate'' after a court ruled that the country's military-backed regime is illegal.

Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, spoke to reporters in Sydney, Australia, where he stopped on his way home from India. The nationalists who seized power in May said the country's large Indian minority had too much power.

In an interview earlier, Chaudhry conceded he may not have the widespread support needed to be reinstalled.

While claiming that Thursday's appeals court ruling ordered the reinstatement of his coalition, Chaudhry told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio his return as prime minister was not certain. ``Well as I said it's a matter for discussion,'' he said.

Chaudhry was expected to arrive in Fiji on Saturday. He said he would immediately meet with former coalition lawmakers to discuss the next step.

Asked at Sydney airport if he believed he still had support, he replied, ``I think so. It has to be tested on the floor of the parliament.''

The interim government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was installed by the military after failed businessman George Speight led the coup. Ratu Josefa was made president.

In a nationally broadcast address Thursday, Qarase and Iloilo said they would accept the ruling but that they needed about a week to discuss the handover of power with government lawyers and the country's influential tribal chiefs.

Despite fears of political violence provoked by the ruling, Fiji's capital, Suva, was quiet overnight and on Friday.

Community, trade union, business and political groups welcomed the court decision with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and cautiously accepted the government's pledge to step down.

``It is vital that the nation accepts the decision of the court. The law is now clear and should be adhered to,'' national daily The Fiji Times said Friday in an editorial.

Uncertainty over the future of the South Pacific nation of 840,000 remains. The tribal chiefs could refuse to accept the court's decision, leading to a new political impasse and renewed instability.

``Right now, the direction is wide open for the country,'' said Mark Halabe, head of the Fiji Clothing and Textile Industry organization.

International pressure is firmly behind a return to democracy with the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand all urging Fiji's interim government to quickly implement the court's ruling.

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