Former prime minister
helped in stabilizing Fiji

SUVA, Fiji >> Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Fiji's first prime minister and a key U.S. ally in the South Pacific during the Cold War, has died. He was 83.

Mara, the dominant statesman in Pacific island regional affairs for nearly 30 years, died late Sunday in a hospital in the Fijian capital, Suva. Hospital officials said the cause was complications from a stroke he had in 2001.

His death plunged this nation of 850,000 into mourning. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase went on state television yesterday evening to confirm Mara had died.

"We have lost a giant among men," Qarase said. "For as long as many of us could remember, he dominated our national life."

Qarase said arrangements were under way for a state funeral, but no date had been set.

Mara was the last of a group of powerful, mostly hereditary Pacific island chiefs who led their countries to independence from British, Australian, New Zealand and U.S. colonial rule from the mid-1960s.

The paramount chief of the Lau Islands of eastern Fiji, he was revered for holding together bickering tribes as he welded Fiji into a stable, multiracial nation after 96 years of colonial British rule. Fiji gained independence in 1970.

"His leadership was marked by discipline, vision and a keen and penetrating intellect," Qarase said. "His dedication to this country was total."

Through the '70s and '80s, the United States, Australia and New Zealand regarded Mara as key to keeping the South Pacific free of communist influences.

The United States persuaded him to ban Soviet vessels from Fiji's ports during a period when Moscow was trying to establish a presence in the region.

Mara also was a major figure for many years in trade and aid negotiations between the European Union and more than 70 Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark lauded him as a leading Pacific statesman and a "father figure" for Fiji. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Mara was an "important stabilizing influence" in Fiji.

Visitors to his homes were often startled to see Mara -- an international statesman who preached democracy and equality -- become angered if visitors did not approach him on their knees as tribal custom called for.


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