PORT VILA, Vanuatu - Australia denied South Pacific nations are split over support for Fiji's military government, after several leaders failed to attend the annual summit of a bloc that has suspended the troubled nation.
The Pacific Island Forum of 16 countries on Thursday renewed its suspension of Fiji at the leaders meeting in Vanuatu, but softened its stance toward the rogue nation by offering to consider including it in talks on a regional trade pact.
The forum suspended Fiji last year in an effort to pressure military commander Frank Bainimarama to restore democracy to the island nation.
Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup and strengthened his grip last year by suspending the constitution and imposing strict media censorship. His government rules by decree.
Australia and New Zealand - which contribute millions of dollars in aid each year to other forum members - have led attempts to return Fiji to democracy, while Bainimarama has sought to undermine the effort.
Bainimarama hosted a meeting of leaders from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu last month, and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare has said since that Bainimarama should be recognized as Fiji's legitimate prime minister.
Somare and the leaders of the Solomons and Tuvalu stayed away from this week's summit, sending senior officials instead.
Denying any split, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith noted that the summit took place as an election was being held in the Solomon Islands and that the other absences may also be for good reasons.
"I detect no inkling, no support, no suggestion that the Pacific Island Forum would do anything other than that which it has done in the past, which is to unanimously adopt the position that Fiji is suspended from the forum pending a return to democracy," Smith told reporters.
The forum received an updated report on Fiji that found the country had made no progress toward returning democratic rule, and as a result the country's suspension would stand. But leaders agreed to consider allowing Fiji to rejoin free trade talks, and to try to engage with Bainimarama's government on democracy.
"The forum stands united and remains committed to assisting Fiji to return to democratic rule," Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele told reporters.
Bainimarama has repeatedly promised to call elections to restore democracy, but keeps pushing back deadlines for them to be held, saying he wants to overhaul the country's electoral and some other laws first. His current timetable is 2014.
Australia and New Zealand have imposed travel bans on members of Bainimarama's regime, but have held off from economic sanctions for fear of further damaging Fiji's crippled economy. In response, Bainimarama has expelled Australian and New Zealand diplomats.
In addition to the suspended Fiji, the forum comprises Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. (AP)