Fiji coup leader Speight arrested by military

SUVA, Fiji - George Speight, who toppled Fiji's elected government in a two-month hostage standoff, was arrested Wednesday by the military, which then stormed a stronghold of his armed followers.

Troops assaulted a school in a suburb of Suva, Fiji's capital, where about 300 Speight supporters have been camped for more than a week. Military spokesman Maj. Howard Politini said about 30 rebels and at least one soldier were injured in the firefight and dozens were arrested, officials said.

The surprise action came ahead of the announcement of Fiji's new Cabinet, expected Thursday, which Speight had demanded be stacked with his supporters or he would renew his campaign of unrest.

Speight, a self-proclaimed champion of the indigenous Fijian majority against the sizable ethnic Indian minority, was accused of illegally possessing weapons and threatening Fiji's new president.

He was seized around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, at a checkpoint, along with his legal adviser Tevita Bukarau, his spokesman Jo Nata and a bodyguard, local radio and the military reported.

Shots rang out, but there were no injuries reported. Speight and his entourage were hauled off to a military barracks.

Hours later, around 6 a.m. Thursday, troops raided the school, and gunfire rang out several times, FM96 radio reported. Soon afterward a heavily guarded truck emerged, carrying more than dozens of Speight supporters, some of them bleeding, all of them with their hands and feet tied.

The truck took about 30 to Suva hospitals, while more military vehicles ferried hundreds of other rebel supporters out of the school. FM96 reported that a soldier was wounded by a gunshot in his upper arm.

Although Speight and his supporters had been granted an amnesty for releasing the last of their 27 hostages on July 13, military spokesman Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini said the amnesty was conditional on the rebels turning in their arms.

''Mr. Speight goes around with armed bodyguards - that is illegal,'' Tarakinikini said. ''We can't have private militias operating around the country.''

Tarakinikini said a police investigation will determine what charges will be brought against Speight.

The arrest came as President Ratu Josefa Iloilo put the final touches on a Cabinet lineup aimed at bringing Fiji out of its 10-week-old government crisis.

Fiji's military bolstered its presence Wednesday across the country ''in anticipation of a negative reaction ... to the announcement of the new Cabinet,'' spokesman Lt. Ro Alipate Mataitini said.

Speight set off the crisis on May 19 when led an armed gang into Parliament and took dozens of lawmakers hostage.

The military regime which took power 10 days after the parliament raid agreed to his demands to scrap the multiracial constitution and oust the government of prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister.

Speight claims ethnic Indians, who make up 44 percent of Fiji's population, have too much power. The Indians were first brought to Fiji in the 1870s as indentured labor.

Threatening a new campaign of unrest, Speight has demanded that the new interim government be stacked with his supporters. The government will oversee the rewriting of Fiji's constitution.

Speight stormed out of a meeting with Iloilo earlier this week, apparently in anger that the ailing 80-year-old president refused to back down from his chosen candidate for prime minister, banker Laisenia Qarase.


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