Fiji rebels release four of their 31 hostages

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SUVA, Fiji - The gunmen holding Fiji's deposed government hostage in parliament have released their four remaining female captives, including a minister in the ousted Cabinet, a Red Cross official confirmed Sunday.

The four women were among 31 hostages being held at the parliamentary complex in the capital, Suva. John Scott, head of the Red Cross in Fiji, said they were freed around midnight Saturday.

''They were taken out under heavy police escort and delivered to their homes if they live in Suva, or to hotels,'' Scott said. He said he had spoken with two of the women and that they sounded ''pretty cheerful.''

Radio Fiji quoted rebel spokesman Jo Nata as saying the rebels released the four as a goodwill gesture. Fiji's school year is about to begin, and the rebels thought it would be proper for the women - all mothers - to be back with their children for the event, the station quoted Nata as saying.

Among the released hostages was Adi Koila. Koila, the transport and tourism minister in the government of ousted Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, is also the daughter of former President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Twenty-seven others former lawmakers, including Chaudhry, remained captive inside Fiji's parliament.

The hostages have been held there since May 19, when rebels led by George Speight stormed the parliament compound. Chaudhry was the first ethnic Indian prime minister of this Pacific island nation, and the ethnic Fijian rebels say they staged their coup because the government was trampling on the rights of the indigenous majority.

In the wake of the coup attempt, some indigenous Fijians launched attacks on ethnic Indians, looting homes and businesses. Fiji's military quickly took over and declared martial law.

Military leaders have been negotiating since with the rebels, trying to agree on details of an interim civilian government that would presumably lead Fiji to new elections within two years. On Friday, the sides announced they had reached an accord, but the deal collapsed Saturday after the rebels refused to release their captives.

The failure to sign the accord had dashed the hopes of the hostages' relatives, who have been waiting more than a month for their loved ones to come home.

''This must be the third time that we were given this high hope that there will be an accord signed and that our family members would be released,'' Virmaty Chaudhry, wife of the deposed prime minister, told Fiji TV.

But hopes were raised again by the release of the four women hostages. The surprise move came ahead of further talks between the military and the rebels planned for Sunday afternoon.

The standoff has pitted Fiji's poor indigenous majority against its relatively affluent Indian minority, sent the economy into a tailspin and raised concern that the South Pacific nation has descended into racism and intolerance.

The military already has promised Speight the removal of Chaudhry's government and changes in the constitution to strip Indians of the political power they shared with the Fijian majority. Those conditions are expected to be part of any accord between the sides.

Sugar, the nation's cash crop, is at the core of Fiji's troubles. Indian farmers built the industry by operating plantations on land that is communally owned by indigenous Fijians and leased at low rates set by English colonial law. Those leases are due to be renewed, and the refusal by Chaudhry's government to accept demands for higher rents on the land enraged many Fijians.

Many Fijians of Indian descent, who make up about 44 percent of the islands' 812,000 people, are fleeing the country.

Because of the country's break with democracy, Australia, New Zealand and the United States have threatened economic sanctions. The refusal by Australian trade unions to handle cargo to and from Fiji has paralyzed much of the country's exports.


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