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Talks Resume in Fiji

May 29, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Fiji’s army said today it had taken control of the capital, Suva, and imposed a 48-hour curfew after a mob of people supporting rebels holding the country’s government hostage shot and killed a policeman and destroyed a television station.

In another development, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that the rebels have threatened to kill one of their hostages in parliament _ the daughter of President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who has been running the country since the coup began 10 days ago.

``This is a measure of the man,″ Downer said of the coup leader, George Speight. ``This is an appalling thing″ to do to Mara’s daughter, Adi Koila Mara, a Fijian legislator.

As negotiations to end the government crisis continued, hundreds of supporters of Speight entered the parliamentary compound where Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and more than 30 members of his government have been held hostage since May 19.

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.

Speight and his gunmen tried to distance themselves today from the killing Sunday of the policeman. 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.

In another sign of growing tension, the Fijian army, which is supporting the elected government being held hostage, 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. Monday (2:00 a.m. EDT). The streets in Suva were largely quiet throughout the day after police advised people to stay home and schools were closed.

The United Nations, as well 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. ``We reiterate our call ... that the hostages be released immediately and unconditionally.″

Olympic authorities in Sydney showed their displeasure by announcing on today that the torch relay, which had been due to go through Fiji 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 an indigenous Fijian police officer was fatally shot by men 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 President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara be removed from office. Mara, an indigenous Fijian who had little power as president, took over the government after the coup and declared a state of emergency.

On Saturday, Mara fired Chaudhry’s democratically elected government. Speight claims he has overturned Chaudhry’s government, appointed himself as prime minister and named his own Cabinet.

Mara, who has rejected the rebels’ demand that he resign, has offered to appoint a caretaker administration.

Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan and the United Nations have condemned any deal that would replace the elected government as giving in to terrorism. The nations have threatened to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Chaudhry, who was elected prime minister last year, is the country’s first leader of Indian ancestry. Fiji, which had two bloodless coups in 1987, 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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