SYDNEY (Reuters) - The leader of Fiji's military junta officially resigned his position in the armed forces on Wednesday ahead of national elections he is widely expected to win.
Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, who took power in a bloodless 2006 coup, announced earlier this year that he would resign as commander-in-chief in order to stand for the presidency in elections slated for September.
Ceremonies were being held in the capital, Suva, to commemorate the end of his nearly four-decade military career and the transfer of command to Land Force Commander Brigadier Mosese Tikoitoga, Australian and Fijian media reported.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop praised the announcement. Bishop visited Fiji last month and has made a thawing of icy relations between the two neighbors a priority.
Australia and New Zealand are Fiji's biggest aid donors.
"This is the latest in a series of positive developments in Fiji's election preparations, and its return to parliamentary democracy," Bishop said in a statement.
Fiji has suffered four coups and a bloody military mutiny since 1987, mainly as a result of tension between the majority indigenous Fijian population and an economically powerful, ethnic Indian minority.
Australia and New Zealand imposed tough sanctions on the regime in the wake of the 2006 coup, which contributed to a sharp deterioration of relations.
Fiji's military government has been criticized by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and activist groups for widespread media censorship and allegations of human rights abuses, including torture.
Bainimarama, who imposed emergency laws in 2009 prohibiting protests and censoring the media, promised in 2012 to begin talks on a constitution to replace one annulled in 2009.
However, police seized and destroyed hundreds of copies of the draft constitution, which had angered senior military officers by curbing the military's interference in politics, sparking criticism from Australia and New Zealand.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Paul Tait