Fiji rebels issue new demands in hostage crisis

SUVA, Fiji - Backtracking on his plan to release the prime minister and more than 30 other hostages, failed businessman George Speight issued a new list of demands Saturday that would place Fiji under the control of his rebels.

Speight, who claims to be acting on behalf of Fiji's indigenous majority, accused the country's new military regime of wrecking a plan to end the hostage crisis and lashed out against Fijians of Indian ancestry as ''our common enemy.''

A military spokesman said the government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama - which eventually assumed power after Speight's rebels seized the country's elected prime minister, lawmakers and Cabinet members - had been consistent in dealing with Speight.

The spokesman accused Speight of prolonging the crisis, now in its third week, by making fresh demands.

Speight released a nine-point proposal that ruled out freedom for the hostages until the military transfers its powers to the influential tribal chiefs in this Pacific Ocean nation 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

Speight also issued a demand that would seem unthinkable to the many Fijians who hold their chiefs in high regard - telling the Great Council of Chiefs that it would have to name Speight ally Ratu Jope Seniloli as president. He would then choose a government, presumably including Speight.

The latest demands come just a day after a solution to the standoff seemed near.

Speight said Friday he would release the hostages this weekend as part of a deal in which the tribal chiefs would meet Monday and choose between a military government and a civilian government of Speight supporters to run the country.

However, Speight said Saturday the military had reversed itself and was insisting on staying in power, so the deal was off. But the military said it had always maintained it would stay in command until new elections were held.

Speight threw Fiji into turmoil on May 19, storming parliament along with six gunmen and taking the government hostage.

The military eventually took charge, declared martial law and threw out a constitution that granted equal rights to Fiji's ethnic Indian minority.

Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, among those still held in the parliamentary complex, had been the first ethnic Indian to serve as prime minister.

Despite the new round of disagreements, Speight said Saturday he wants to keep negotiating with Bainimarama, the military ruler, also an ethnic Fijian.

''We don't want Fijians fighting Fijians - our common enemy is the Indians,'' Speight said Saturday.

Not all ethnic Fijians agree.

About 600 people, many of them indigenous, turned out at a rally in western Fiji on Saturday to express support for Chaudhry's government and to condemn Speight.

The west is Fiji's economic heart, with most of the sugarcane fields, some small gold mines and the better tourist resorts.

A tribal chief, Ratu Sairusi Naganigavoka, told the crowd that if Speight takes control of Suva, the capital to the east, then western Fiji should break away.

Military roadblocks have cut off supplies to the parliamentary complex where the hostages are held, and Speight's men have been coming out to rob nearby homes, plunder garden crops and kill cattle. There have been frequent skirmishes between Speight supporters and troops.

Nations including the United States, Australia and New Zealand have threatened to impose economic sanctions if Fiji doesn't return to democratic rule.


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