Fiji Tourists, Gov't Hostages Freed
Jul. 12, 2000
SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Fiji's two-month-long hostage crisis appeared to be near a close Wednesday with the release of nine captives, but ominous signs existed of civil order unraveling elsewhere in the Pacific island nation.
Rebels freed nine of the 27 hostages they have been holding in Parliament for nearly two months, raising hopes that the government crisis was nearing an end.
A second rebel group _ apparently seeking talks about a land dispute _ seized the exclusive Turtle Island beach resort where the movie ``The Blue Lagoon'' was filmed, briefly holding 40 tourists.
And about 70 people, also wanting to discuss land rights, gathered outside Suva's airport. Airlines said they were operating normally, but advised travelers to check their flight before leaving for the airport.
Late Wednesday the military also reported a riot in the maximum security wing of the Naboro prison, 10 miles outside Suva. Military spokesman Maj. Howard Politini said more than 50 prisoners rioted overnight and took about six guards hostage.
It was not immediately clear if anybody was injured in the riot of if the prisoners had made any demands.
The nine released lawmakers were all the ethnic Indian members of parliament held except for deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his son. The other remaining hostages are indigenous Fijian legislators.
``Put anyone in captivity for eight weeks with armed people and you feel it ... the stress and worry, confinement and fear, constant fear of anything bad happening,'' freed hostage Deo Narain said.
The release came three days after rebel leader George Speight signed an agreement with Fiji's military government to end the hostage crisis. Under the deal, Speight was supposed to release all his hostages Thursday.
Fiji's crisis began May 19 when rebels stormed Parliament and took several dozen hostages, including Chaudhry _ the nation's first leader from the large ethnic Indian minority.
Speight spokesman Jo Nata said nine hostages were released early Wednesday as a goodwill gesture and to prevent a ``stampede'' if all hostages were released together.
Also, the hostages themselves had asked to be released at night ``to avoid the humiliation'' of a release in front of rebel supporters, Nata said.
Speight's rebels are ethnic Fijians who say the Indian minority has too much power. The military, which seized control 10 days after the coup, already has agreed to rebel demands that the multiracial constitution be scrapped and Chaudhry be deposed.
On Sunday, the military agreed to let the Great Council of Chiefs choose a new president, and Speight agreed to free the hostages.
Unrest has persisted despite the deal. Speight supporters have occupied police stations and blocked roads in an apparent effort to wring more concessions, including Speight's possible appointment as prime minister.
On Turtle Island, the 40 resort guests, including 11 children, were detained overnight and released Wednesday morning. The group included Australians, Americans, New Zealanders and Britons.
The resort's owner, American Richard Evanson, was still being held in a hotel room and rebels said they wanted to talk to him about ownership of the island, resort manager Robert Bestford said.
Members of the resort rebel group, some of whom were armed with knives, said they support Speight. But they could have claimed rebel affiliation to take advantage of an amnesty being offered for political crimes related to the hostage crisis.
They were believed to be from a tribe in the Yawawa islets off Viti Levu's northwest coast who for years have been involved in a dispute over who owns Turtle Island.
In other unrest, Speight supporters occupied the police station at Labasa, on the island of Vanua Levu. Five people were reported injured, one of them seriously, by gunfire.
Indo-Fijians, whose ancestors were brought to the islands by British colonialists over a century ago to work in the rich sugar cane fields, make up 44 percent of Fiji's 812,000 people. Many indigenous Fijians, who make up 51 percent of the population, resent the Indo-Fijians' economic and political clout.
Fiji's tourist industry has been devastated by the government crisis, with some of the hundreds of resort hotels scattered across dozens of islands reporting occupancy rates as low as 10 percent.