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Gunfire Breaks Out Near TV Station, Parliament

July 30, 1990

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) _ Gunfire and explosions broke out today around the government television station and Parliament, where Moslem extremists held the prime minister and 30 other people hostage for a fourth day.

Later today, an Anglican minister negotiating between the government and the rebels said a settlement was likely.

The heaviest shooting was centered on the television station, whose employees were taken hostage Friday. Automatic rifle and machine-gun fire was punctuated by what sounded like artillery booms.

One witness said he heard four explosions that sounded like bombs.

″A major firefight is going on,″ said a diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The shooting at the station appeared to be coming from two directions, but it was not clear whether security forces had tried to storm the building.

Earlier, automatic weapons fire rang out near Parliament, about a mile from the television station, where rebels seized Prime Minister Arthur N.R. Robinson on Friday. Witnesses said they heard what sounded like heavy artillery booms.

A ham radio operator in Trinidad said he monitored a radio communication indicating security forces had stormed the television station and were moving on Parliament.

But Col. Ralph Brown of the Trinidad-Tobago Defense Force denied the station was attacked.

He told reporters that troops had fired on the TV station when the rebels tried to leave the building. ″Some of his men tried to come out and we are not letting them out.″

An Anglican minister who was negotiating between the rebels and the government, the Rev. Knolly Clarke, also spoke with reporters early this afternoon.

When asked if a peaceful solution was likely, he said, ″Yes, today. The end is in sight.″

One of the rebels inside Parliament, Kwasi Attiba, said by telephone that a tentative agreement with the government had been reached to end the siege.

Attiba said the accord called for Robinson to resign immediately and be replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Dookeran. Attiba gave no indication when Robinson and other other hostages would be released, and no government official could be reached to confirm his report.

An agreement was also reported Sunday by a television executive, Jones Madeira, who was held at the station. He said in a telephone interview that under the plan, Robinson would turn over power to an interim government, which would rule until elections in three months.

Robinson won the 1986 parliamentary elections by a landslide, and the next elections are not scheduled until 1991.

The rebels claim Robinson’s government is corrupt and responsible for widespread poverty in this once oil-rich country. They claimed Saturday to have wired Robinson with explosives and threatened to blow him up if a rescue attempt was made.

Attiba said the gunfire at Parliament came from police ″who have been attempting to thwart″ negotiations.

Attiba said the rebels were holding eight government ministers along with the prime minister.

Energy Minister Herbert Atwell said Sunday the two sides were far from a settlement. But Attiba said: ″We are very hopeful for an amicable solution.″

Security forces patrolled the capital with orders to shoot looters on sight.

Abu Bakr, leader of a black Moslem commune, stormed Parliament on Friday and captured Robinson and most of his Cabinet. Bakr is believed backed by Libya but has little general support.

Simultaneously, the rebels seized the government television station and its employees.

Unconfirmed reports said more than 20 people had been killed in the fighting. A medical officer at the state hospital said today he could confirm only five deaths, including that of a police officer.

Fires burned in the capital of Port-of-Spain on Sunday. There was scattered gunfire and widespread looting. Convoys of cars and pickup trucks were loading up with everything from looted powdered milk to refrigerators, electric stoves and television sets.

The government sent police and military patrols to re-establish order and continued a nationwide curfew that was imposed Saturday.

Atwell, representing the government, appeared on national television late Sunday with an official statement saying: ″I am in no position to offer any hope that the situation will be resolved speedily and-or amicably.″

He confirmed reports that Robinson and Justice Minister Selwyn Richardson had each been shot in the leg.

State-run radio 610 said Nolli Clarke, an Anglican priest, was the official mediator with help from Anglican Bishop Clive Abdullah and Roman Catholic Archbishop Anthony Patin.

The Red Cross sent mobile units to take blood donations from people too frightened to leave their homes.

Radio 610 estimated damage downtown at $50 million as thousands of people looted stores, shopping centers, warehouses and industrial plants.

A spokeswoman for President Bush said Sunday that American citizens and tourists on Trinidad and Tobago did not appear to be in danger.

″Obviously we support the government and are coordinating closely with them until the situation is resolved,″ a State Department official said in Washington. The official did not want to be identified.

Bakr is a former policeman in his mid-40s who converted to Islam in 1980 while living in Canada.

He founded Jamaat al-Muslimeen, which means the Moslem Group in Arabic, in 1984 and set up a commune on land he said had been donated to Moslems by the late prime minister, Eric Williams.

Bakr built a mosque, a school and a kitchen to feed the homeless. Some 250 to 300 Moslems live there.

Bakr has visited Libya several times and is believed to have received assistance from that country.

He has said the coup was intended to stop ″poverty and the destruction″ of Trinidad and Tobago, which has high unemployment and skyrocketing food prices.

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