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Shooting Breaks Out in Fiji

May 27, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ A gunbattle broke out Saturday between rebels who have been trying for a week to seize power in Fiji and government troops, leaving two soldiers and a journalist wounded.

The shots were fired about one-quarter of a mile from Parliament, where rebel leader George Speight and about 60 gunmen have been holding Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and more than 30 members of his government hostage.

Chaudhry, elected last year, is the first leader of Fiji from its ethnic Indian minority. Speight claims to be acting on behalf of the Pacific island nation’s majority ethnic Fijians, and wants to reduce the powers that Indians can hold in the government.

Saturday’s shootout with military forces, the first since the takeover began May 19, occurred after about 200 supporters of the coup and at least three armed rebels left the parliamentary compound and confronted about eight soldiers at a roadblock.

In an effort to remove the roadblock, the supporters tried to grab the soldiers’ weapons and pushed one of them to the ground. The other soldiers fired warning shots. The rebels shot back, setting off a brief gunbattle before both groups dispersed.

Two soldiers and a cameraman for Associated Press Television News were wounded. Officials said one soldier was hit in the shoulder and the other in the leg. Jerry Harmer, 38, of Britain, a senior producer and cameraman for Associated Press Television News, was shot in the right wrist.

Doctors at Suva’s Colonial War Memorial hospital said Harmer’s condition was good.

The soldiers withdrew and were chased by the rebels, who threw rocks and tore down tents erected at the checkpoint. The rebels stopped their charge at a second checkpoint, which had been abandoned by police when the shooting started, and they eventually returned to Parliament.

The clash came a day after scores of Fijians rushed into the parliamentary compound to support the rebels, flooding past military barricades to join them.

The leading defector was Maj. Josefa Savua, the brother of Fiji’s Police Commissioner Isikia Savua. He said he joined the rebels ``because I am a Fijian. I want a future for my children.″

``This might be the beginning,″ said rebel spokesman Simione Taikani. ``The police might come. Everybody might come.″

In another development, a committee of the Great Council of Chiefs _ the supreme body representing Fiji’s various tribal royalty _ re-entered negotiations on Friday with Speight to try to end the eight-day crisis.

Speight is demanding immunity from prosecution, the abrogation of Fiji’s constitution and the resignation of President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who has declared a state of emergency.

After a two-hour meeting, the chief’s committee spokesman, Epeli Kanaimaii, reported no agreement and said meetings would resume Saturday.

Speight, who was not involved in the shootout, blamed the confrontation on Mara’s decision to bolster security around the compound with military checkpoints, in addition to police checkpoints set up last week.

``I don’t want the army to be deployed, restricting the movement of people and the free access of people who wish to come and go as they please,″ Speight told a news conference inside the compound after the incident.

He said he authorized his men to remove the roadblocks.

``I authorize, tacitly, any action that our security forces feel is necessary in order to remove a threat from the perimeter of this complex,″ Speight said.

Police Commissioner Isikia Savua announced Friday that he had handed over security around Parliament to the army because armed men from the compound had been approaching checkpoints at night and threatening officers. Fiji’s police do not carry guns.

The United Nations and foreign governments including the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand have criticized the tribal leaders for not cracking down on Speight and his backers.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the chiefs had 48 hours to support the democratically elected government or face economic and political sanctions.

``Mr. Speight is a terrorist _ this is an act of terror,″ Downer said in Canberra.

Fiji is located in the Pacific 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. Ethnic Indians make up 44 percent of the population of 813,000, while indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent.

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