Gunmen seize parliament, government leaders in Fiji

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SUVA, Fiji - Heavily armed troops surrounded the parliament building in this South Pacific paradise Saturday, where insurgents claiming they were ruling the country held government leaders hostage.

Radio Fiji reported the gunmen led by Suva businessman George Speight have threatened to shoot their hostages if attacked, and local reporters inside parliament said the rebels appeared increasingly nervous in anticipation of a military rescue.

But one of the hostages, Deputy Prime Minister Tupeni Baba, appealed to the government in a statement not to attempt such a raid, saying ''if shooting takes place, we must expect the worst.''

Radio Fiji, which has a reporter inside parliament, later reported the rebels had held a gun to Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry's head and threatened to execute him. Chaudhry also reportedly was badly beaten by his captors.

The developments came as authorities resumed direct talks with the seven masked gunmen who stormed parliament a day earlier, firing from AK-47 rifles before seizing Baba, Chaudhry, Cabinet ministers and lawmakers.

Chaudhry is Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister. His year-old administration is the first to be dominated by Indo-Fijians, a fact that has angered some indigenous people in this island group located two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand.

Speight said he had seized power on behalf of all ethnic Fijians and was suspending the constitution. On Saturday, he announced that he had been sworn in as interim prime minister and would rule Fiji by decree.

''It is obvious to everybody that the actions that we have taken are per the desire and fulfillment of the aspirations of our indigenous people,'' Speight told a news conference Saturday inside parliament.

But it is clear he has neither control nor influence outside the parliament building.

And the coup attempt appeared headed for failure as military, police and influential Fijian leaders lined up behind Chaudhry's democratically elected government and President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Friday's seizure of parliament coincided with a march through Suva of supporters of the nationalist Taukei Movement, which erupted into hours of rioting when news of the hostage taking broke. Markets in downtown Suva were torched, store windows shattered and shops looted.

Ratu Mara declared a state of emergency, giving himself the power to command the military. He imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and appealed to the hostage takers to release the lawmakers.

Police said 200 rioters were arrested. Peace had returned to Suva's streets before daybreak Saturday, although some looting was reported.

The Taukei Movement on Saturday called on Fijians to march to parliament in a show of support for Speight. By mid-afternoon, about two dozen people who had gathered before the movement's call was issued were the only visible supporters.

Former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka - himself leader of two coups in 1987 - was holding direct talks with the rebels, saying he had urged them to surrender.

''I am totally behind the president in this case,'' Rabuka said.

Rabuka, who is also chairman of the council of chiefs - the supreme body for ethnic Fijians - said he would call on the council to express their support for Chaudhry and to expressly deny Speight's claim that he is acting on behalf of ethnic Fijians.

Earlier, Jahir Kahn, assistant commissioner for the police-military operation guarding the streets, said the rebels had no support among the military.

''You can say it's a coup or you can say it's a situation,'' Kahn said. ''But right now as far as we're concerned (Mara) is still our president. He's declared a state of emergency and we are working directly for him.''

Chaudhry's election came under a revamped constitution which largely removed clauses that discriminated against Indian migrants, originally brought to Fiji as laborers on sugar plantations.

Sun-drenched Fiji is one of the most developed of the Pacific island economies, heavily reliant on tourism and sugar exports. The former British colony is considered an easygoing nation but tension has been building for months between minority ethnic Indians, who make up about 44 percent of the 813,000 people, and the majority Fijians, who account for 51 percent.

Fiji nationalists are angry at attempts by Chaudhry to persuade Fijian landowners to renew expiring leases on farm land held by thousands of ethnic Indian tenants.

In a nationally broadcast radio address Friday, Ratu Mara appealed for calm.

''In these difficult times and on these occasions, a lot of courage is demanded of us all,'' said Ratu Mara, whose daughter, Adi Koila Mara, was among ministers being held.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand called for the release of the hostages.

''The consequences of any unconstitutional seizure of power would be very substantial,'' the U.S. Embassy in Suva said. American Ambassador Osman Siddique met with Ratu Mara Rabuka to discuss the crisis.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon on Saturday warned that Fiji could be expelled from the multination grouping if Speight came to power.

''I'm concerned and very angry ... I wouldn't like to see a situation again where Fiji isolates itself from the international community,'' McKinnon told Fiji Radio.


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