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Fiji military leader says no elections for 5 years

CANBERRA, Australia — Fiji's military ruler defied international pressure to announce elections by Friday, confirming that he would not hold them for at least five years and setting the stage for his country's ouster from a South Pacific bloc.

"I think we made it quite clear that is not going to happen," military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama told Australia's Sky News television in an interview broadcast Friday. "There will be no elections until September 2014," he added.

Bainimarama ousted the ethnic Fijian-dominated government in a 2006 coup and installed himself as prime minister. He has vowed to rewrite the constitution and electoral laws to remove what he says is discrimination against the country's large ethnic Indian minority before holding elections. Critics say he shows little sign of being willing to give up power.

The Pacific Islands Forum, a key 16-nation bloc that includes Australia and New Zealand, had given Fiji until Friday to announce elections for 2009 or be suspended from the group. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said there would be "an immediate trigger" for Fiji's suspension once the deadline passed at the end of the day.

Under the suspension, Fiji would be barred from all the forum's meetings and lose out on development funding until a democratic government is restored.

Fiji President Ratu Josefa Iloilo announced in early April that elections would be delayed until 2014. At the same time, he suspended the national constitution and fired judges who had declared the military government illegal. Emergency laws were also imposed on the media to curb expressions of dissent.

Bainimarama said Friday that the censorship laws would be extended when they expire later this month.

"We want this calm to continue for a while," Bainimarama said. "It's irresponsible reporting that undermines" calm.

Bainimarama said within two weeks he would announce a five-year timetable for reforms leading to the 2014 elections.

"We have to get rid of racism in the country in the next five years," he said, referring to the long-standing conflicts between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians. Bainimarama is an indigenous Fijian.

He also called for Australia and New Zealand to be expelled from the Pacific Islands Forum, saying the were putting undue "pressure on the Pacific Islands and that's not how we operate."

McCully said Thursday that foreign aid to the impoverished country had already slowed, and the European Union had frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to help restructure Fiji's sugar industry, a key export income earner for the severely weakened economy.

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