Coup leaders in Fiji releases some captive lawmakers

SUVA, Fiji - Two influential ethnic Fijian groups pledged their support Sunday for rebels holding the South Pacific nation's ethnic Indian prime minister and members of his Cabinet hostage in parliament.

Ratu Tevita Bolobolo, leader of the Taukei movement of ethnic Fijians, read out a statement that was also endorsed by the main opposition party, known as SVT.

''We do not and we will never accept the reinstatement of the Chaudhry government,'' Bolobolo said, referring to Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. ''We hereby state that we fully support the abolition of the 1997 constitution and warn (Fijian President) Ratu Mara that any intervention by force will lead to all out civil war.

''We the Taukei are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice so as to return this country to the Taukei.''

The statement was the first major sign of support for rebel leader and self-appointed new Prime Minister George Speight who launched an armed coup Friday, saying he represented all ethnic Fijians.

The statement was sent to Ratu Mara along with a demand for changes to the constitution so only an indigenous Fijian can hold the offices of prime minister and president and to revert all freehold land to native ownership.

Combined, the Taukei movement and SVP party command strong support among ethnic Fijians who make up 51 percent of the national population of 813,000.

For months, ethnic tensions have been building between indigenous Fijians and the descendants of Indian migrants, who dominate commerce in Fiji, which lies 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. Indians make up about 44 percent of Fiji's population of 813,000 while indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent.

Earlier Sunday, the rebels released 10 hostages after they signed documents backing the coup leader, local radio reported.

''We had to sign the conditions, it was a condition of our release,'' said John Ali, one of the government members released.

Ali said all lawmakers were led one by one into a room by two hooded gunmen and told to sign letters of resignation. They were told if they didn't they would be shot by rebels in the event of armed intervention to end the standoff.

''We were given a life or death ultimatum. We chose life,'' Ali said of the lawmakers who signed.

Fiji's Radio 96 reported that the 10 were released in two groups. About 50 people were captured in Friday's uprising.

Chaudhry, who was not one of those released, earlier collapsed inside the Parliament House complex. Local media reported that Chaudhry's collapse was stress-related.

Speight allowed doctors in to see Chaudhry after daybreak and he was reportedly given oxygen and was resting under sedation.

Local radio also reported that a shot was fired inside the parliament complex early Sunday, prompting Speight to order all lights in the complex turned off. Speight later said the shot was accidentally fired by one of his own men, radio reported.

Most of the members of Chaudhry's coalition government who were released Sunday were indiginous Fijians, local radio reported.

The coup attempt appeared headed for failure Saturday as military, police and influential Fijian leaders lined up behind Chaudhry's democratically elected government and the president.

''It's an action myself and my group are willing to risk our lives for,'' said Speight, barefoot and dressed in a traditional sulu skirt, talking through the gate to international media for the first time Saturday night.

Speight said he had appointed a new president using executive powers assumed in the coup.

Former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka - himself the leader of two coups in 1987 - is acting as chief negotiator between the rebels and Mara and he returned to parliament Sunday.

Rabuka, who accused Speight of treason, has urged the group to surrender. He left parliament after about an hour without commenting on negotiations.

Fiji's capital, Suva, was quiet Sunday, as it has been since rioters rampaged downtown on Friday following the raid on parliament.

But unrest was reported in other parts of the country.

Police said there was localized looting in the western town of Raki overnight, and issued a public warning that lawbreakers would be treated harshly.

A state of emergency and dawn to dusk curfew have been imposed for two weeks.


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