Fiji's president tries to bring hostage crisis to a close

SUVA, Fiji - In an attempt to bring armed rebels occupying Parliament closer to surrender, Fiji's president said Monday that the current government might be replaced even if the coup attempt fails.

President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara's comments appeared to be a conciliatory sign to indigenous Fijian rebels, who have been holding government officials hostage since storming Parliament on Friday.

Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first prime minister of Indian descent, is among the hostages in this South Pacific country where ethnic tensions have been building in recent months.

Mara said that he would hold talks with the democratically elected government once the coup attempt ends.

''We will have a dialogue and see what they offer,'' he said. ''I cannot say I will put back the government that has caused all these problems.''

Mara was backed by Maj. Gen. Sitiveni Rabuka, the president of the Great Council of Chiefs - the supreme body of indigenous Fijian leaders.

Prime Minister Chaudhry's position ''now is untenable,'' Rabuka said. ''If he feels for the country and he sees the demonstrations and the destruction, he might feel that he wants to step down.''

Rabuka, who led two coups and ruled for 12 years, said he supports the aims of the armed rebels holding more than 20 Cabinet ministers and lawmakers hostage, ''but not their methods.''

Rebel leader George Speight on Monday renewed a threat to harm the hostages if an armed rescue mission was mounted, reversing a safety guarantee he gave Sunday.

''If anyone enters the barriers of this complex with the view to free them (the hostages) we will not hesitate,'' he said. ''Their safety is conditional upon everybody staying out of this place.''

Speight confirmed earlier reports that rebels had taken Chaudhry outside into the grounds of parliament at gunpoint. He said it was in response to an alleged attempt by an unknown group to enter the compound.

Officials said no rescue mission had been launched.

Speight claims Chaudhry's year-old coalition discriminated against indigenous Fijians. Tensions have been rising between the indigenous people and the descendants of Indian migrants, who dominate commerce in this country.

Mara sent a letter to Speight on Sunday night promising to address concerns of ethnic Fijians and pledging that ''the position of the indigenous community will be protected and enhanced.''

Fijians of Indian descent make up about 44 percent of Fiji's population of 813,000, while indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent.

The president said he had a plan to end the standoff, which would be presented Tuesday to the Great Council of Chiefs.

''Our main objective is to see that no blood is spilled,'' Mara said.

Speight said he would ''retire'' if the council does not back his coup attempt. Local media also reported he said he would release his hostages if the council orders it.

The failed businessman declared himself prime minister after storming parliament with seven gunmen and swearing in a replacement government.

Police on Monday tightened security around Suva's parliament complex, stopping news crews at checkpoints and searching vans delivering food and other supplies.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth urged Fiji to reinstall its democratically elected government and said if the chiefs did not, the U.S. relationship with Fiji would deteriorate.

''This meeting could play a major positive role in leading toward a resolution of this crisis and the preservation of the constitutionally elected government,'' Roth said.

''If the government were to be toppled by force, U.S. law would require policy changes and again put the relationship on a downward path and I think, the biggest losers would be the people of Fiji.''

Also Tuesday, New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff announced the United Nations was sending the head of the U.N. administration in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, to Fiji to mediate in the crisis.


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