Triumphant Fiji rebels release last hostages unharmed

  • Discuss Comment, Blog about
  • Print Friendly and PDF

SUVA, Fiji - After a two-month hostage standoff, Fiji coup leader George Speight freed the ousted prime minister and 17 others Thursday, proclaiming that the country's radical restructuring of power is now in its final stages.

Speight, whose rebels took their hostages in a quest to disenfranchise the Pacific island nation's ethnic Indian minority, made clear that three decades of democracy in Fiji were at an end. He said the coup had made a political statement ''not just to Fiji but the world.''

Speight spoke at the end of a day that brought rapid-fire developments in a crisis that had dragged on since May.

On Thursday morning, the rebels tearfully hugged their 18 remaining hostages as they freed them from their long imprisonment in the nation's Parliament complex. Later in the day the Great Council of Chiefs, Fiji's traditional power, elected Ratu Josefa Iloilo, Speight's hand-picked nominee, as the country's new president. The council made its choice under the gun of a wave of civil disturbances that seemed to be spinning out of control.

In the wake of the denouement, what was left behind was a vastly different Fiji. The elected government is gone; ethnic tensions remain inflamed; the crucial tourist industry is ravaged. The United States and other countries have urged their citizens to leave, and the tiny nation faces the possibility of international sanctions.

The crisis began May 19 when Speight's rebels stormed Parliament and took several dozen hostages, including then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. The rebels are indigenous Fijians who said the nation's large ethnic Indian minority had 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, 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 declare martial law.

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

The deal came to fruition Thursday. The hostage-takers held a traditional ceremony seeking forgiveness by offering a bowl of kava, a mildly narcotic drink, to the last captives to be freed. The hostages then emerged from Parliament to the cheers of about 150 Speight supporters.

Among those in the group was Chaudhry, the ousted prime minister. Speight shook hands with him and hugged him before the hostages left on two trucks for the Red Cross building, where they were given quick medical checkups.

Later, Speight jauntily walked into a press conference sporting a Western-style suit jacket, the traditional Fijian sulu skirt and sunglasses in the evening darkness. A horde of reporters chased him, asking him how he felt.

''Excellent,'' he replied.

But the ebullient Speight said his work wouldn't be completed until his choices for all the positions in the new government are accepted.

''Then I will consider my work done, and I will take a rest,'' he said.

The Great Council of Chiefs' selection of Iloilo as president raised hopes that civil unrest would abate. They were to meet Friday to choose two vice presidents, endorse the Cabinet proposed by Speight and decide who will serve on a commission to write a new constitution.

''Everything that is happening in the country at the moment is putting pressure on the chiefs,'' rebel spokesman Jo Nata said before the hostage release. ''Suva is almost under siege, the whole nation is in chaos. Isn't that what you'd call holding a gun against the heads of the chiefs?''

For the most part, the civil disturbances that began sweeping the country a week ago in support of Speight began easing shortly after the hostage release. Roadblocks that had cut off traffic between the international airport and the capital, Suva, were removed.

However, four tourist resorts - but no hostages, the military said - were seized by groups apparently taking advantage of an amnesty for political crimes to pursue land disputes. Rumors were rife that the main airports could be shut down at any time, and Speight supporters occupied several police stations, a military base, the hydroelectric dam that powers the main island and a tuna cannery.

On Thursday night, one man was killed and several other wounded when the military retook control of the maximum security wing of the country's main prison, Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio said. Twenty guards had been held for two days after an uprising.

Amid the continuing unrest, the hostages returned home. All looked to be in good shape, although Chaudhry, the ousted prime minister, had lost weight from a six-week fast.

Chaudhry said he held no animosity toward his captors, but noted that he was beaten the night after the coup began.

''The situation is very alarming but I am an optimist,'' he said. ''The nation has to get back on its feet.''

Asked if he still considers himself prime minister, he said, ''The people will answer that.''

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff described the hostage release as ''one bright spot in an otherwise pretty dismal picture.'' The United States upgraded a travel advisory and urged Americans to leave the country, and Australia and New Zealand did the same for their citizens.

Amnesty International Australia slammed the guarantee of immunity for rebels, saying, ''Today, the seeds of the next coup have been sown.''


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment