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Fiji Leader Vows Not To Use Force

May 31, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Fiji’s new military leader promised today not to use force to free government hostages being held by rebels inside parliament as officials try to win their freedom through negotiations.

Armed supporters of Fiji’s coup leader, meanwhile, stoned cars and beat their drivers in the capital outside the parliament complex, and police and soldiers did little to stop them.

In the attacks, which seemed to target Fiji’s ethnic Indian minority, men armed with automatic rifles and others carrying clubs and knives dragged drivers out of their cars close to parliament before robbing them and taking the vehicles.

Soldiers, who are manning roadblocks throughout the capital, Suva, did not immediately intervene.

The violence was short-lived. The mob returned to parliament after the military bolstered its presence on the streets.

More than 30 hostages have been held by coup leader George Speight and his armed rebels for 12 days in the parliamentary complex.

Speight told Australia’s Foxtel television that he would hold the hostages as long as necessary, calling their captivity ``a small discomfort″ compared to injustices he claims to be fighting on behalf of ethnic Fijians.

The rebels want the Indian minority removed from power and Fijians of Indian ancestry barred from leading the country.

The military said it would continue negotiations with Speight and his supporters, but there were no face to face meetings between the military and Speight’s negotiators today. The military ruled out the use of force.

``Right now it is not an option. We have to think of the lives of the hostages,″ military leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama said at a news conference.

Speight has had Fiji’s leaders in a stranglehold since May 19, when he and six other masked gunmen stormed parliament and took the officials hostage, including Mahendra Chaudhry, the first prime minister elected from the island’s ethnic Indian minority.

The country’s military proclaimed martial law and took control of Fiji on Monday but has since accepted virtually all of Speight’s demands.

Despite these concessions, Speight has not released his hostages. Today, the rebels again rejected the military’s newly appointed prime minister.

Bainimarama said he would take the president’s powers himself and named Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as prime minister.

Nailatikau is a former army commander and husband of former President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s daughter, Adi Koila Mara. She is among the hostages inside parliament. Bainimarama’s choice was seen as the army trying to show that it will not follow all of Speight’s dictates.

But rebel spokesman Joe Nata told New Zealand’s National Radio that Nailatikau was unacceptable to the rebels because of his links to the Chaudhry administration and to Mara.

Late today, Bainimarama said in a news release he did not intend to name any more ministers until the hostages were freed.

One hostage was released early today to attend her sister’s funeral. Assistant minister in the prime minister’s office, Adi Ema Tagicakibau, left the parliamentary complex flanked by two police officers only after promising to return once the ceremony was over. It was not immediately clear if she did return.

On Tuesday, Bainimarama, who declared martial law and took control on Monday, threw out Fiji’s 1997 constitution that Fijians blame for giving Fijians of Indian descent too much power. The minority controls many of the shops and businesses in Fiji.

He said today that the interim government would draw up a new constitution and prepare for fresh elections but warned that the process could take up to three years. He also buckled to another of Speight’s demands _ that Speight and the six rebels who stormed parliament with him be granted an official amnesty.

Today’s developments were the latest in a crisis that has sprung from ethnic tensions in Fiji, 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

Fijians of Indian ancestry make up 44 percent of the population of 813,000. For months, ethnic tensions have been building between them and indigenous Fijians who blame the 1997 constitution for giving too much political power to the ethnic Indian minority.

The United Nations and countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States have criticized Fijian forces for failing to crack down on Speight and his allies. Sanctions have been threatened against Fiji if it refuses to return to democracy.

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