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Martial Law Imposed in Fiji

May 29, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Fiji’s military commander said today he had imposed martial law to bring stability to the nation that has been in crisis since rebels took the government hostage on May 19.

The army leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, said that President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who has been running the country since the coup began, had resigned.

``I have, with much reluctance, assumed executive authority of the country, and henceforth declared martial law,″ Bainimarama told a news conference. ``The primary objective of this government is to take the country toward peace and stability and the well-being of Fiji at the earliest opportunity.″

Repeated phone calls to the president’s residence were not answered.

Bainimarama said troops would restrict access to the parliamentary compound where the insurgents are holding Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and more than 30 members of his government. That would isolate the rebels from supporters who have been coming and going freely at the compound.

Although Bainimarama’s military had expressed supported for Mara, the troops had not previously played much of an active role in the crisis.

The strategy changed today, one day after a mob of people supporting coup leader George Speight killed a policeman and knocked Fiji television off the air. The military declared a 48-hour curfew and troops and police were out in force patrolling the streets of the capital, Suva.

Bainimarama then said he was in control of Fiji, replacing Mara, who held little power in his job as president but recently had taken executive control of Fiji.

There was no immediate response from the rebels.

In another development, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Speight’s rebels had threatened to kill Mara’s daughter, Adi Koila Mara, a Fijian legislator and one of the hostages.

``This is a measure of the man,″ Downer said of the coup leader, George Speight. ``This is an appalling thing.″

Speight and his gunmen tried to distance themselves from the killing of the policeman on Sunday. Their spokesman, Joe Nata, told New Zealand’s National Radio that the attack _ the first fatal one in the hostage drama _ was carried out by forces beyond their control.

Earlier, the Fijian army ordered all its reservists to report for duty. It was not immediately clear how many reservists the army has.

The 48-hour curfew began at 6 p.m. today. The streets in Suva were largely quiet throughout the day after police advised people to stay home and schools to close.

Speight, a member of the Fijian majority, wants Chaudhry, Fiji’s first prime minister from its ethnic Indian minority, removed from power and Indians barred from ever leading the country again. A former insurance salesman, Speight was fired last year by Chaudhry as chairman of two local companies involved in managing Fiji’s lucrative timber trade. He had been appointed to both posts by the previous government, in which his father was a senior member.

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.

``We strongly condemn the repugnant, criminal actions of George Speight and his band of gunmen who continue to hold hostages in Fiji’s parliamentary complex,″ the U.S. Embassy in Suva said in a statement today.

Olympic authorities in Sydney showed their displeasure by announcing today that the torch relay, which had been due to go through Fiji on June 3 on its way to the Sydney games in September, would bypass the country.

For days, the mood of the coup supporters inside the compound had been largely celebratory, but that changed Sunday when armed men shot and killed an ethnic Fijian police officer in the capital. The mob also vandalized television station TV One in Suva.

In comments likely to further inflame indigenous Fijians, Speight told a Sydney radio station today that he had discovered papers in Chaudhry’s parliamentary office outlining what he called a plot to enhance ethnic Indian influence in the country.

``They had a project _ a very comprehensive social, political plan _ aimed at all levels of society, but specifically undermining Fijian political and traditional structures with a view to entrenching Indian influence in Fiji,″ Speight told 2UE radio station.

On Sunday, Speight rejected the latest offer from Fiji’s influential tribal leaders for a peaceful solution to the crisis, saying he would not drop his demand that the Fiji constitution be rewritten to keep Indians out of power and that Mara be removed from office. Mara took over the government after the coup and declared a state of emergency.

Mara has joined the tribal leaders in negotiations with Speight, which have taken place for several days and resumed today.

Speight says he expects a new offer in the next few days in an agreement that could lead to the freeing of the hostages.

Chaudhry, who was elected prime minister last year, is the country’s first leader of Indian ancestry. Fiji is an island nation in the Pacific 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney. Fijians of Indian ancestry make up 44 percent of the population of 813,000 but control much of the nation’s commerce, while indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent.

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