Rebels free nine hostages in Fiji; Other rebels release 40 tourists

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SUVA, Fiji - Indigenous Fijian rebels freed nine of their 27 government captives Wednesday, moving this Pacific island nation closer to the end of a crisis. Other rebels seized a beach resort where ''The Blue Lagoon'' was filmed, later releasing its 40 guests.

The release of the government captives came hours after an unrelated rebel group seized a posh resort on Turtle Island over what they said was a land dispute.

''We saw a crisis in Fiji and we're thinking this is a good time,'' rebel Mavi Ratulevu said.

The 40 guests, including 15 Americans, were released from the resort and placed on a cruise ship to Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. The resort's owner, American Richard Evanson, was being held in a hotel room with two of the people who occupied the island.

''We're going to keep an eye on him for a while,'' Ratulevu said. He added the group might be occupying the island for a week, unless a satisfactory resolution could be reached.

The taking of the resort was the first attack on a foreign-owned facility during the government crisis on the Pacific island nation.

The crisis began May 19 when rebels stormed Parliament and took several dozen hostages, including then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

The nine government hostages were turned over to the Red Cross and then went to their homes, police and a Red Cross doctor said. They included all the ethnic Indian parliamentarians except for the deposed prime minister and his son. The other remaining hostages are all ethnic Fijian legislators.

Bhagat Ram, the Red Cross doctor who saw the nine freed hostages, said all of them were unharmed.

''They looked happy to get out of that (Parliament) complex,'' Ram said. ''They conversed very well and they have gone to their homes.''

The release came three days after the rebels, led by former businessman George Speight, signed an agreement with Fiji's military government to end the hostage crisis. Under the agreement, Speight was supposed to release all his hostages Thursday.

It was unclear what the early release signified.

Speight's spokesman, Jo Nata, said the hostages were released because ''we felt - apart from being a gesture of good will - it is a consideration of security. If we released them all at once it could cause a stampede outside Parliament.

''They also had asked us if and when they were released if we could do it at night to avoid the humiliation of being liberated in front of our supporters.''

Mary Aull, the wife of freed Parliamentarian Bill Aull, said his release was ''unbelievable.''

''It's been a long time,'' she said. ''God was good.''

Mary Aull said her husband appeared to be unhurt, but he did not want to talk about his ordeal. ''We still have hostages inside,'' she said.

The rebels are ethnic Fijians who say the nation's large ethnic Indian minority has too much power. They demanded that the country's multiracial constitution be scrapped and that Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, be deposed.

In the days after the seizure of the hostages, Speight supporters looted and burned ethnic Indian homes and businesses, and many Indians made plans to flee the country. The violence led Fiji's military to take control and declare martial law.

On Sunday, after weeks of negotiations, military leaders and Speight reached the deal to free the hostages are supposed to be freed in exchange for the granting of many of Speight's demands, including a new government and a new constitution curtailing Indian rights.

There has been speculation that Speight may end up with a Cabinet post, perhaps even the prime minister's job. He told a news conference that such a move would be a perfect end for the coup.

But unrest has persisted despite the deal. Speight supporters have engaged in widespread civil disturbances across the nation, occupying police stations and blockading roads in an apparent effort to wring more concessions from the military regime.

Members of the group told reporters they support Speight. But they could be claiming rebel affiliation to take advantage of the amnesty being offered for political crimes related to the hostage crisis.

''I don't know if these people are in support of us or are taking advantage of the situation,'' Nata said.

Indo-Fijians, whose ancestors were brought to the islands by English colonialists over a century ago to work in the rich sugar cane fields, make up 44 percent of the nation's 812,000 people. Many of the indigenous Fijians who comprise 51 percent of the population resent their economic clout.

Fiji's tourist industry has been devastated by the government crisis, with some of the hundreds of resort hotels scattered across dozens of islands reporting occupancy rates as low as 10 percent. However, around 1,000 Americans a week have been among tourists still coming into Fiji.

It was not known if any of the guests on Turtle Island were American.


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