LONDON Britain ordered the suspension of the government of its Caribbean territory of Turks and Caicos on Friday and imposed direct rule after an investigation found evidence of widespread corruption.
The move means Britain will take day-to-day control of the island group, a British overseas territory with a population of about 32,000 located in the Atlantic between the southern Bahamas and the north coast of Haiti.
British authorities said the step was needed to restore good governance and sound management in the territory, which has unspoiled beaches and coral reefs and is striving to become a leading offshore financial center
The former premier removed by the British measure, Galmo Williams, condemned the suspension of the constitution and government as a coup d'etat that he said put Britain "on the wrong side of history."
Britain began investigating alleged corruption last year and found "clear signs of political amorality and general administrative incompetence."
"After careful consideration, I have instructed the Governor to bring into force today an Order in Council which will suspend ministerial government and the House of Assembly for a period of up to two years, to allow the Governor to put the Islands' affairs back in good order," Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant said in a statement.
Williams, who was appointed premier in March, 2009, issued a statement accusing the British authorities of "dismantling a duly elected government and legislature and replacing it with a one man dictatorship." He said the territory was being "invaded and recolonized" by Britain.
Britain announced plans to remove the cabinet and elected assembly of the Caribbean colony in March. The Court of Appeal dismissed a legal challenge to these plans on Wednesday, allowing Britain to impose direct rule.
Governor of the territory Gordon Wetherell said the move did not amount to a "British takeover."
"Public services will continue to be run by people of the Turks and Caicos islands, as indeed they should be," he said.
"I believe most people in the Turks and Caicos will join me in welcoming these changes."
ELECTIONS BY JULY 2011
In his address, Wetherell said he and the British government were committed to working toward holding free and fair elections by July 2011.
"We have much to do and public expectations are high ... People need to feel safe from crime and we need to clean up public life and start to develop a fairer, more open society," he said.
A top financial regulator in the territory said the suspension of the government would not affect the operation of its offshore finance sector, which has about 16,000 companies registered, including many specializing in warranty insurance.
"There is no change in the status of the regulatory body or in the day-to-day running of the finance sector," J. Kevin Higgins, managing director of the Turks and Caicos Finance Services Commission, told Reuters by telephone.
He said the Turks and Caicos offshore finance sector had "not been in any way tarnished" by the corruption probe, saying this had focused more on tourism and real estate activities.
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Miami; editing by Bill Trott)