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Fiji Coup Leader Speight Arrested

July 26, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ George Speight, who toppled Fiji’s elected government in a two-month hostage standoff, was arrested Wednesday by the military and accused of threatening the island nation’s new president.

Hours later, soldiers raided a nationalist rebel stronghold, engaging in a shootout before arresting dozens of Speight’s supporters, local radio reported. At least one soldier was injured in the firefight Thursday.

FM96 radio said gunfire rang out shortly before 6 a.m. at a school at Kalabu, a suburb of Suva, Fiji’s capital, where about 300 Speight supporters have been camped for more than a week. A second burst of shots was heard about 45 minutes later.

Soon afterward a heavily guarded truck carrying more than 20 Speight supporters, their hands and feet tied, left the school, FM96 reported. Soldiers had blocked the road and were preventing news crews from entering the area.

FM96 reported that a soldier had been rushed from the school to Suva’s main hospital bleeding heavily from a gunshot wound to his upper arm.

Speight was arrested at a military checkpoint about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, along with his legal adviser Tevita Bukarau, his spokesman Jo Nata and a bodyguard, local radio and the military reported.

Shots rang out at the checkpoint, but there were no injuries reported. Speight and his entourage were hauled off to a military barracks.

Although Speight and his supporters had been granted an amnesty for releasing the last of their 27 hostages on July 13, military spokesman Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini said the amnesty was conditional on the rebels turning in their arms.

``Mr. Speight goes around with armed bodyguards _ that is illegal,″ Tarakinikini said. ``We can’t have private militias operating around the country.″

He said Speight was arrested because of ``allegations brought to us about the carriage of arms in and around Suva by George Speight and his bodyguards and also threats to the head of state.″

Tarakinikini said a police investigation will determine what charges will be brought against Speight, who this month boasted how he had torpedoed the swearing-in of a new government that only had two of his supporters.

The arrest came as President Ratu Josefa Iloilo put the final touches on a Cabinet lineup aimed at bringing Fiji out of its 10-week-old government crisis.

There was no immediate reaction to the arrest from supporters of Speight, a self-proclaimed champion of the indigenous Fijian majority against the sizable ethnic Indian minority.

Speight set off the crisis on May 19 when led an armed gang into Parliament and took dozens of lawmakers hostage, demanding the elected government be overthrown and that the ethnic Indian community be stripped of political power.

The military regime which took power 10 days after the parliament raid agreed to scrap the multiracial constitution and oust the government of prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister.

Speight claims ethnic Indians, who make up 44 percent of Fiji’s population, have too much power. The Indians were first brought to Fiji in the 1870s as indentured labor.

Threatening a new campaign of unrest, Speight has demanded that the new interim government be stacked with his supporters. The government will oversee the rewriting of Fiji’s constitution.

Speight stormed out of a meeting with Iloilo earlier this week, apparently in anger that the ailing 80-year-old president refused to back down from his chosen candidate for prime minister, banker Laisenia Qarase. The new Cabinet is expected to be announced Thursday.

Fiji’s military bolstered its presence Wednesday across the Pacific island ``in anticipation of a negative reaction ... to the announcement of the new Cabinet,″ spokesman Lt. Ro Alipate Mataitini said.

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