Coup supporters seize hostages on Fiji

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SUVA, Fiji - Armed rebels claiming to support Fijian coup leader George Speight seized up to 30 hostages on Saturday at a police station near the capital, in the latest escalation of the island nation's governmental crisis.

A spokesman for the new captors, Iferemi Tiko, told reporters he was a cousin of Speight and that the latest hostage taking was in support of Speight's aims to disenfranchise ethnic Indians.

The captives included local soldiers, police and government officials.

There were no reports of injuries and the rebels said they did not want to see bloodshed.

Also Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Suva said ambassador Osman Siddique was being recalled to the United States for consultations.

''The United States continues to be deeply concerned about the current situation in Fiji,'' the embassy said in a press release. ''We deplore both hostage taking and efforts to deny political rights to citizens of Fiji.''

About 100 rebels armed with tire irons, steel pipes and other makeshift weapons took over a military checkpoint in Korovou, about 40 miles outside Suva, early Saturday before confiscating six M-16 rifles and storming the town's small police station.

The rebels demanded the resignation of military head of state Commodore Frank Bainimarama, echoing one of Speight's key demands.

''We will hold on here until he steps down. This takeover is from the people,'' Tiko, his face covered by a ski helmet and sunglasses, told reporters.

Tiko said he and his supporters were ''very disappointed'' by the military's recent tactics at Parliament, where Speight and a gang of gunmen are holding 27 hostages including deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

The army has given Speight and his supporters until midnight Saturday to leave the area. They also shot and wounded five Speight supporters in a 15-minute gunbattle Tuesday.

Tiko said he had asked Speight for ''military advice'' before taking the hostages.

The town of Korovou, which is close to Speight's home village, was generally calm and most stores remained open. The rebels set up a roadblock outside town made up of a refrigerator, engine parts, a wheelbarrow and two trucks.

Tiko described the hostages as his ''guests'' and said they were being treated well - which is how Speight also describes his hostages.

Also Saturday, Speight supporters closed the main road between Fijian capital Suva and Nadi, where the country's international airport is located.

The army could not immediately be reached for comment but appealed for calm on national radio.

Days of civil unrest across Fiji - including local landowners shutting down the largest island's main hydroelectric power station - have shown the depth of support for the rebels and prompted the military to restart stalled peace talks.

Further negotiations were expected Saturday afternoon at the main army barracks on the outskirts of Suva.

Former insurance executive Speight, who stormed Parliament with six other gunmen on May 19 and took the government hostage, is demanding the resignation of a newly installed civilian government and military commander and head of state Commodore Frank Bainimarama before he releases his hostages.

Rebels and the military discussed the latest demands Friday in talks described by both sides as positive.

The military, which took power 10 days after Speight's coup, recently named an all-ethnic Fijian civilian government to prepare for elections. Bainimarama retained leadership of the country, however.

Although the military has met most of Speight's demands to disenfranchise Fiji's ethnic Indian minority, including deposing Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, the first Fijian of Indian ancestry to lead the country, and scrapping the multiracial 1997 constitution, Speight is still refusing to release his hostages.

Fifty-one percent of the people are indigenous Fijians and many resent the clout of ethnic Indians who account for 44 percent and dominated the ousted government.

A 48-hour deadline for all Speight supporters to leave Parliament due to expire at midnight on Friday was extended a further 24 hours.


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