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Fiji's Diplomatic Tussle With Australia, New Zealand Escalates

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Australia has ordered Fiji's most senior diplomat to leave the country in response to a decision by the Fijian military to expel its Australia's high commissioner. New Zealand's top official in Suva also has been thrown out after being accused of interfering in Fiji's domestic affairs.

The latest quarrel among Australia, New Zealand and Fiji is over a group of expatriate judges from Sri Lanka that Fiji wants to recruit. They are to replace judges who were fired after declaring the military government illegal earlier this year.

Both Canberra and Wellington warned the judges from Sri Lanka that if they took the posts in Fiji they would be subject to travel bans imposed on all senior officials in the military administration.

The threat infuriated Fiji's interim prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. He accused the high commissioners, or ambassadors, from New Zealand and Australia of meddling in his country's internal affairs and ordered them to leave.

Australian officials describe the expulsions as unreasonable and provocative, while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has defended the decision Wednesday to expel Fiji's most senior diplomat.

"The Fijian regime led by Commodore Bainimarama has conducted a military coup, he has violated the constitution, he has refused to hold elections and he's suspended the judiciary," noted Rudd. "And so therefore we have taken a deliberately hardline approach to this regime because we do not want this coup culture to spread elsewhere in the Pacific."

Australia and New Zealand's relations with and their small South Pacific neighbor, Fiji, have been in decline since an army coup in December 2006.

Fiji has seen four coups since 1987. Commodore Bainimarama seized power claiming the elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was dishonest and pursuing racist policies against the ethnic Indian minority.

Despite international pressure, the military leader has refused to commit to a swift return to democracy. Elections could be at least five years away, while the commodore conducts what he calls a mission to cleanse Fiji of corruption and racism.

His critics accuse him of behaving like a dictator and of trashing the country's reputation overseas while key industries, including tourism and sugar production, decline.

The Fijian archipelago lies about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand and has a population of just under a million people.