Swearing in of new Fiji Cabinet postponed indefinitely

SUVA, Fiji - Coup leader George Speight claimed Wednesday that he was responsible for a delay in the Fiji's new Cabinet taking office, a move that raised concern of a return to the civil unrest that has plagued this Pacific island nation since May.

The postponement was officially attributed to an illness by new President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

But Speight, who says he represents indigenous Fijian interests against the minority Indians, said he was not satisfied with the 20-member Cabinet named Tuesday - although it had no ethnic Indians and two Speight supporters.

Local media reported that members of the ousted ethnic Indian-led government would meet Thursday to discuss setting up a separate state.

The Cabinet swearing in ceremony was put off five minutes before its scheduled start with the reason given that new President Ratu Josefa Iloilo was feeling ''ill disposed.''

Details of Iloilo's condition could not be verified. The frail 80-year-old tribal chief, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, was sworn in as president Tuesday.

But it was clear that behind-the-scenes maneuvering was the real reason for the delay as Speight sought greater representation for indigenous Fijians.

Speight and his supporters took 27 government officials hostage in Parliament on May 19, holding them for nearly two months. The last hostages were freed last week, but Speight had not left Parliament until Wednesday.

The Cabinet delay came as signs of civil unrest cropped up once again in this Pacific nation.

As Speight left parliament, his his supporters set fire to nine vehicles in apparent anger at the Cabinet lineup.

The arson spree reportedly ended immediately after the Cabinet delay was announced.

Speight said he was not adequately consulted on the Cabinet, despite a promise from Iloilo that he would be included in negotiations.

''I have been in touch with the president through a high-ranking chief of mine to express my disappointment,'' Speight told Australian television's Channel Nine shortly before the ceremony was put off.

Speight said Iloilo agreed to allow him to review the list of prospective ministers and that the ceremony would not proceed.

Speight threw Fiji into crisis when he led an armed gang into Parliament and took lawmakers hostage, including Mahendra Chaudhry, the first ethnic Indian prime minister.

In the bargaining to free the hostages, Speight succeeded in deposing Chaudhry and getting the constitution altered to strip ethnic Indians of political power. And Speight and his followers were given immunity.

He freed his last 18 hostages on July 13 as part of a deal that Speight said would disenfranchise ethnic Indians.

The Indians make up 44 percent of the 814,000 population but dominate the economy in Fiji, a nation of 320 islands about 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

The demise of democracy in Fiji prompted Australia and New Zealand to impose sanctions.


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